The New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA) held its fall 2023 Founders & Funders event at the Newark Public Library earlier this month, and the event did not disappoint. Founders at various stages of development from all over the state had the opportunity to meet with VCs and angels to talk to them about their companies and jump-start relationships.
Tim Sullivan, CEO of the NJEDA, keynoted the event, pointing out that the organization is pushing ahead with many programs that are part of the Murphy administration’s focus on innovation. “We’ve seen a huge increase in venture capital invested in the state and by the state,” he said.
“The ecosystem is larger, stronger, more diverse and more vibrant than it was five or six years ago, and the good news is the future is bright, despite the challenging times,” he told the crowd. “It’s a challenging time for fundraising, it’s a challenging time for exits, it’s just a challenging time for this space.” But it is a good time for “New Jersey to make the long-term investments that are needed,” so that when things heat up again in the investment markets, the companies will be ready, he said.
NJTechWeekly.com cornered several of the founder attendees and spoke to them about their companies and their reactions to the event.
Frank Jackson CEO of Shutterbug Exchange | Esther Surden
Frank Jackson of Shutterbug Exchange
Frank Jackson, CEO of Shutterbug Exchange (Jersey City), also known as “SBX,” said “We are working on a model-driven, closed-loop system to remanufacture the end of life of solar panels. We want to turn waste into global gain, or waste into power.” He said that the company is using new-generation 3D printing, advanced optics and machine learning to create a “solar revitalizer” that can breathe new life into used solar panels. “We’re focused on sustainability and the circular economy primarily, as well as resource management.”
He noted that when solar panels are at the end of their lives, “e-waste is just landing in landfills, but the industry is leaving precious minerals on the table. And, so, if we can put those minerals back in circulation, of course, it goes back into the circular economy.” The company is also hoping to use technology to change the way solar panel manufacturing is done. And it wants its upcycled panels to help under-resourced communities by lowering acquisition costs and manufacturing costs.
Jackson has been working with Montclair State University to further his innovation, and told us that Judith Sheft, executive director of the NJEDA’s New Jersey Commission on Science, Innovation and Technology (CSIT), has been very helpful to them. His company is a graduate of the Cleantech Open accelerator, and of the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program.
He was as enthusiastic about the entrepreneurs he met at the event as he was about the investors. One entrepreneur told him that since he didn’t have customers yet, he should think about the customers he could get and how he will make money from them, and then lead his discussions with investors with that information. Jackson had been through nine meetings with investors during the day, and was especially interested in the advice he received from one who didn’t even invest in his field. That investor told Jackson not be so technical when pitching. He should be able to explain his idea more simply. “They’re smart people, and the more you can explain an idea, the more they will be interested,” that investor said.
Sanjeev Varshney, founder and CEO of Cyntra | Esther Surden
Sanjeev Varshney of Cyntra
Sanjeev Varshney, founder and CEO of Cyntra (Secaucus), told us that his company is building a platform using conversational artificial intelligence (AI) that will allow retail customers to check out in under 30 seconds. Imagine stepping up to a kiosk and saying, “I want a medium coffee with a croissant” and have it “just take your order from your voice,” he said. You will have prepaid, so you can just pick up your food and leave. “The AI-powered self-service kiosk incorporates adaptive algorithms into an intuitive framework, facilitating a seamless user experience. It is designed to ensure faster checkouts using AI voice activation, smart facial recognition, RFID [Radio Frequency Identification] tech and a gamified user interface.”
We asked Varshney about his meetings with investors, and he said that he had spoken with six people during the event. He thought that the NJEDA put together a great event and that the meetings went well, especially considering that this was the first time he had ever been to a funding event. He said that Founders & Funders left him motivated to continue his fundraising journey.
Heather Dahill and Sandy Sabean of Merity | Esther Surden
Sandy Sabean and Heather Dahill of Merity
Speaking for Merity (Wall Township) were Sandy Sabean, cofounder and CEO, and Heather Dahill, chief revenue officer. According to Sabean, Merity is “creating a workplace with more inclusion and diversity focused on helping female talent to rise through the ranks.” The founders noticed that progress was being made regarding the pay gap for women in corporate America, but not in their ability to rise within their organizations.
“What we’ve seen is that there is a misalignment with organizations and how they are treating female talent. Professional development has been saved for the upper echelons or female executives, but mid-level high-potential talent is being ignored because of the price point to offer it. So, we are democratizing leadership development and coaching for organizations,” she said.
“We created a platform where we’re connecting self-reflection, professional development, career coaching and the cohort of community in a one-stop shop for organizations to purchase” so they can elevate their talent.
We asked the duo about their meetings with investors. They said that they had had four or five meetings and had connected strongly with three of the investors, who were committed to the same mission they were. They added that these investors had made them aware of preconceptions in their field that could be a barrier to entry for their company into the market, and suggested how to overcome them. “When someone brings up a negative, it helps us,” by enabling the company to figure out how to overcome it, Dahill said.