Educational sessions at Google I/O Extended 2015: New Jersey gave over 250 attendees a chance to learn technical skills and to gain an understanding of the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Tech enthusiasts flocked to Montclair State University on May 28 to attend the day-long gathering, which was a companion to Google’s annual San Francisco-based I/O conference.
Many I/O Extended events took place throughout the world in conjunction with the San Francisco conference. The Montclair event was organized for the second year in a row by Google Developer Group: GDG North Jersey, which arranged for a number of experts to give presentations and join in panel discussions.
The energetic atmosphere may have been summarized best by GDG North Jersey founder Todd Nakamura. “It was hard for me to express how excited I was for this event, so the only thing I could possibly think of was a little song that goes something like this,” Nakamura told I/O Extended guests in one of the university’s lecture halls. Then he donned sunglasses and proceeded to rap to the beat of Nicki Minaj’s “Truffle Butter.”
“Oh, sing it out loud!” Nakamura exclaimed. “It’s I/O Extended everybody, rockin’ this crowd!”
Attendees soon viewed the live stream of Google’s keynote presentation, which unveiled developments like Google Photos and the evolution of virtual reality.
The rest of the day featured over 20 informational sessions, several of which addressed local topics. For example, a panel discussion titled “Jersey’s Startup Scene” gave the audience an overview of the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Panelist and JuiceTank cofounder Charlie Patel told the audience that there were several components to a healthy ecosystem, including talent, funding, political support, corporate backing and geographic density.
“I don’t think anyone can argue about talent in New Jersey,” Patel said. “Let’s face it, most of that talent does end up in New York City at some point. However, we’re all Jersey folk. So if you can attract that talent to stick around—if you can show them that you have traction in your business—I think we can solve that problem. And I think we’ve done a good job at it. I’ve seen a lot more folks say ‘Well I’m just going to headquarter here in New Jersey.’ And I’m sure if you’ve read the headlines recently, some pretty big companies are doing that. So that’s a good sign.”
Regarding funding, Patel said, “You have access to capital through the incubators, you have access to capital through some of the accelerators, and I think there’s more of that to come as the New Jersey startup ecosystem as well as the tech ecosystem [matures].” He then added that “you don’t necessarily need to go out of state for it anymore.”
However, Patel said that progress still needed to be made regarding political support, corporate backing and geographic density.
“For an ecosystem to work, you need the regulatory environment in politics to play a role,” Patel said. “So I don’t think we’re the best state to do business in, right? We’re certainly not on the top of that top 10 list across the U.S., so there’s room for improvement there.”
“I don’t think we have the corporate backing just yet,” and this is a problem, according to Patel. “Corporations actually play a big role in a startup or a tech ecosystem when you’re trying to build it because they actually fund or sponsor a lot of the research,” he explained. “Now, is that happening? Yes, there’s definitely sparks here and there. But when you think about an entire state, we should have a lot more of this.”
Finally, Patel told the group that New Jersey does not have the advantage of geographic density, as do some other startup ecosystems such as the burgeoning tech hubs in Boston, Mass.; Austin, Texas; and Boulder, Colo. But Nakamura, who moderated the panel, suggested that sprawling Silicon Valley could serve as a model for New Jersey’s tech ecosystem.
Another panel, titled “Growth in the Garden State,” discussed the driving forces behind innovation in New Jersey. “There’s a lot of great things happening in New Jersey right now,” said panelist and LaunchNJ organizer Carlos Abad, who pointed to the Google I/O Extended conference as an example. He praised Montclair State’s own Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship, which he said is “constantly putting on fantastic programs.”
Abad also lauded the city of Newark because it is “working closely with New Jersey Institute of Technology and many other institutions.” He added that Newark is “becoming a city that’s full innovation and technology, and it’s starting to get national recognition.” The Brick City is indeed home to companies like audiobook giant Audible Inc., a subsidiary of Amazon.
“All of these things are happening,” Abad said. “You have a lot of tech meetups all around the state. They have thousands of members, they’re pulling in hundreds of people. That’s fantastic. We also already have a highly educated population, great university systems, a lot of good corporations that could work with us, people who have wealth enough to help support a lot of the businesses, so I really believe that we’re going through a renaissance.”
In fact, recent changes in New Jersey’s economy may present entrepreneurial opportunities. Abad said that, while many pharmaceutical and telecom companies are leaving New Jersey, their talented workers are staying behind. “There are a lot of people currently who are displaced, who are very intelligent, they’re very successful, but their companies moved,” he explained. “As an entrepreneur, I would view that as being an opportunity. These are people that may be willing to come and work at your companies at a discount, and have a lot of skills and resources that you may need.”
Some important entrepreneurial resources can be found online. Panelist and serial entrepreneur Jeanne Gray directed audience members to her website, American Entrepreneurship Today. The site offers state-specific maps of entrepreneurial businesses and related organizations. It also provides news, a list of upcoming local events, opinion pieces, and an aggregation of press releases that entrepreneurs may find helpful.
Other sessions at the Montclair I/O Extended conference were more technical, focusing on topics such as cognitive computing, machine learning, building apps and the big data computing platform Apache Spark.
But local topics and technical topics may soon become synonymous. During the “Growth in the Garden State” panel discussion, Abad said, “Now is the time for New Jersey to actually become an [innovation] and tech leader.” According to this year’s panelists, a lot of the necessary people and tools needed for that transformation are already in place.