You might say the New Jersey Technology Council was born in Pennsylvania.
That's where Maxine Ballen was in the mid-1990s, a decade after founding the Pennsylvania Innovation Network, when she caught the attention of people across the Delaware River. Chief among them was venture capitalist John Martinson, who saw how she had fostered the emerging tech community in the Keystone State and asked if she would consider relocating to New Jersey.
At first she resisted, but after a year of back and forth, she grew excited about the potential to repeat the process in the Garden State.
Fast-forward 18 years, and the New Jersey Technology Council is one of the most respected tech groups in the country and one of the state's most well-known trade associations. And it's thanks in no small measure to Ballen, who will step down this week as its president and CEO in order to pursue other opportunities.
“I think we provided and filled a niche and a hole that people didn't recognize they needed because we never existed before,” Ballen said. “But once we came to be, people really enjoyed the opportunity to come together because technology is very isolating and New Jersey is very isolating.”
In her place will be James Barrood, who ran Fairleigh Dickinson University's Rothman Institute of Entrepreneurship since 1997. He will take the reins of a Mount Laurel-based organization that has grown to 1,000 members.
In other words, Ballen put the N.J. tech community on the map.
“(One) big contribution was creating a brand or a voice for the tech community in New Jersey,” said Chris Sugden of Edison Partners, a Lawrenceville-based investment firm. “The NJTC is touted as one of the largest tech trade groups in the country. And a part of that is the time they've been around because they were at the front end of that.
“The second part of that is the staying power of Maxine and the ability for her to really cultivate a community.”
That work effectively began in 1985, when Ballen left a position in marketing to start the Pennsylvania Innovation Network, she said.
“We were sort of innovative in that there weren't many of them around,” Ballen said. “The chambers of commerce just weren't meeting the needs of our companies. Those traditional associations no longer fit the mold of the new, emerging entrepreneurial, innovative company that we were excited about in those days.”
It was around 1995 when Martinson, who founded what was then known as Edison Ventures, approached her about relocating. Once she was on board, she asked for $250,000 to get the tech council off the ground. He offered her $75,000 and suggested she raise the rest.
She did just that, starting Jan. 1, 1996, with one staff member working in incubator space in a Princeton law firm.
Since then, tech councils have increased their presence. There are now 48 councils around the country and a centralized organization named TECNA, in Chicago.
But for Ballen, one thing that makes NJTC unique is its access to capital.
In 2000, the NJTC raised $80 million for a venture fund and, in 2004, the NJTC started its member-led angel network Jumpstart NJ. The network has made investments in New Jersey success stories such as United Silicon Carbide Inc. and TechLaunch.
Sugden, a managing partner at Edison Ventures, worked with Ballen in creating a financial technology conference. The conference, FinTech for short, held its third annual event in June 2014.
“What I liked about Maxine was that she was open to suggestion, criticism, innovation and improvement,” he said.
Ballen is also quick to mention the importance of not just financial capital, but also human capital that helps the tech industry grow.
“We worked very closely with the universities and tried to encourage them to really think forward. ”
The final piece of the puzzle for Ballen was government resources, prompting the state and federal lobbying efforts such as the council's annual “Tech Trek” to the Beltway.
“I have a saying: 'Democracy is not a spectator sport,'” she said. “Those officials in Washington, they know who the Tech Council is; they know that when we come to visit them, we are bringing issues that are important for the future of New Jersey and the future of the country.”
Still, after 18 years at the helm, Ballen recognizes it's time to move on. Now she'll be transitioning toward working with a few companies rather than many, taking the form of board opportunities.
“I think age is an issue. I think you want someone that's going to represent the younger perspective,” she said.
“I think Jim represents the perfect age and perspective to do that,” she said of Barrood.
But don't ask her what she plans to do with her “retirement.”
“I hate this word 'retire.' I am retiring from the council, but I am not retiring,” she said. “That is just the worst word in the world and I'm using 'transition.'”
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