Princeton – the Shining City on the Hill

Posted on April 14, 2009 in Blog, Clean tech, Entrepreneur | 0 comments

By Dwight Irving

In my last post I included the qualifier “with the possible exception of Princeton.” I’m going to upgrade that qualifier to, “with the certainty that Princeton…” After a networking meeting I went to last week, my thoughts on the whole suburban entrepreneur issue in NJ are starting to change.

Last week I went to a NJ Entrepreneurial Network (NJEN) meeting at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab(PPPL). The meeting was advertised as having a panel of different players in the Clean Tech field, and, if that weren’t enough of a draw, attendees got a tour of the lab.

The 50, or so, event attendees were from a wide variety of occupations. From the recently laid-off project manager to the insurance salesmen, the occupations traversed through angel investors and venture capitalists, energy technologists, investment advisors, a former COO, software consultants, HR people, start-up founders and several others. I swear that if a chimpanzee had shown up on skates, it would have had at least one of everything I wanted to see that day.

The meeting started with an open networking session and lunch. Getting over the initial awkwardness of introducing oneself to someone new is something I overcame a while ago, but I still have to switch mental gears before I can turn it on. These types of events are almost like speed dating without the structure and rejection issue. Everyone I walked up to was ready for a conversation, and had a good story. I made a couple of contacts for later follow-up, and then the panel started.

The only thing to say about the panel was that the organizers had a great idea, but it was a miss for me.

After the panel there was a little more time for networking and then the tour started. For those of you unfamiliar with the PPPL, it houses a large experimental tokamak fusion reactor and a smaller reactor based on incremental technology that hopes to reduce the size and cost of experimental units. The large reactor was in operation, so for safety reasons we couldn’t see it. Instead, we got a tour of the control room.

Walking through the control room, I expected to hear a klaxon and see red strobes start up at any time. That is the way it always happens in the movies, isn’t it? After the control room, we headed upstairs to the small reactor. After a description of the technology and goals of this reactor, I asked how long it would be before it was small enough to integrate into a DeLorean. The answer was, “Never.” I think Doc Brown may have a little something to say about that type of defeatist attitude. He’s probably just about ready to show up back then.

Getting back on topic… This meeting had all the players I was looking for in my recent cruising of the networking meetups. Obviously, I hadn’t been giving the NJ entrepreneurial scene enough credit. But does it take a PPPL to gather this type of audience? To expand on that, I need to provide a little background for those of you who don’t live in New Jersey.

I am not a native Jerseyan, I moved here from Idaho in 1986. Yeah, it was not an easy transition. My views on things-Jersey may not be those of a true son of the Garden State, so when I think I’m onto something I run it past my friends and my wife’s family to see if it holds water. After the NJEN event, I asked my panel of experts what they thought of Princeton. Their thoughts matched reasonably well to mine, so I’ll go forward describing them

To Jerseyans, Princeton is a source of pride. A top Ivy league school and the home of Einstein, John Nash (see “A Beautiful Mind“), James Madison and Bill Bradley. The “Princeton” brand is applied to buildings and businesses far away from the actual city. And yet, there is a barrier that makes one think twice about going there. It’s in Jersey, but not really “of Jersey”. It’s placed on a metaphorical plateau somewhere in the mile high range. It’s seen as insular, unapproachable by normal folk, high-falutin’ even.

Some Princetonians encourage this attitude with an elitist demeanor toward those who live in the Jersey below the plateau. But I’ve found that most Princetonians belie this image. Take the PPPL tour as an example. The PPPL is one of the greatest geek cathedrals in the world. In the geek pantheon, it’s placed just below the Kennedy & Houston space centers, and Disney World. Yet our tour guides, and the people whose work we interrupted, were enthusiastic, welcoming and expansive about the place. They were “just” good people, who happen to be very intelligent and have some very expensive toys to play with.

Princeton has “it”, and I got to get me some of that. The Princeton Rt 1 corridor stretching north toward New Brunswick and south toward Trenton, is an extension of Princeton that still has the same emotional barriers as the borough. Sarnoff, numerous drug companies, and various technical start-ups can be found there in high density. Can a ramp be built from that plateau to spread that environment to the rest of New Jersey? Should it?

This blog is stretching into short story territory, so I’ll summarize:

1) The NJEN events are must-attend meetings for NJ Entrepreneurs.

2) Princeton could be as big a player as New York City in spreading the entrepreneurial spirit in New Jersey

I need to think about this issue for a while longer, and I’m sure my ideas will continue to change as I do.