It didn’t take Steve Fulop long to become a big fan of the Liberty Science Center.
Shortly after becoming mayor of Jersey City in 2013 — and shortly after seeing some of the amazing things that were going on there — Fulop challenged the heads of the Liberty Science Center to come up with a redevelopment proposal for the land across Phillip Street.
That’s the way Paul Hoffman, the CEO and president of the center, explained it.
“We’ve had people like Craig Venter who mapped the human genome, and has also (taken) initiatives to reprogram DNA and organisms to excrete biofuels, to excrete pharmaceuticals,” Hoffman said. “So, we’ve had these people come here, and the mayor was struck by this, and wondered if there was a place that we could create where folks like this, when they have their next business idea, could set up shop.”
That place may finally be coming.
Late last month, the Jersey City council voted for the city’s redevelopment agency to sell the land to SciTech Scity, a new arm of Liberty Science Center, for just $10.
The SciTech Scity complex will be made up of a STEM K-12 school, a conference center, the Edge Works business optimizer and Scholars Village, for short- and long-term accommodations. Hoffman said he expects the project to become a living laboratory.
The project is projected to cost $280 million.
“What we wanted to do is create a mini-city,” Hoffman said. “A place where people would play, would live, where they worked, where they could send their kids to school and we would all come together to invent the future. Not just let the future happen to us, but using science and technology to hopefully steer solutions to social problems to companies that could be offering those solutions that would help us all in the future.”
Hoffman said SciTech Scity will be unlike any other place in the area.
“This will be a very experience-rich place,” he said. “The whole physical model is for designing a space that is connected and reflects that collaboration that we expect to take place there. All the high school kids will be able to do internships at the Edgework Business Optimizer.
“These kids will have real-world experience in science and technology. Then you have the graduate student housing for students in STEM. They’ll be working at the companies at the business optimizer, and they will be serving as mentors for the kids in the K through 12 program.”
Although Liberty Science Center has set lofty goals for its mini-city project, SciTech Scity is still in its conceptual stage.
According to Hoffman and the assistant director, Daniel Lafuente, SciTech Scity will be funded by a combination of philanthropic contributions and private partners.
“We have to raise $78 million between individual philanthropy and our corporate partners,” Hoffman said. “There’s $55 million in investors’ dollars that we would need, and then that gap is the debt financing … that the venture partners would take on.”
Lafuente also said Liberty Science Center is hoping to work with a different developer for each facility at the complex.
“What we’re looking for is venture partners that are specialized in school building, that are specialized in office and research labs, that are specialized in state-of-the-art smart homes and accommodations,” he said.
“So, as much as possible, we want to stay local, but that’s one of those decisions that we’ll certainly have a big say on it, but will also depend on who we identify and select as venture partners.”
So far, Liberty Science Center has raised $1 million for the project. The nonprofit cannot take on investor capital until it obtains the title to the land.
Hoffman said about a dozen entities have shown interest in SciTech Scity, and that, although the center’s vision is very developed, it is still open to revising facets of its master plan to find a balance with the needs of the investors.
“We looked at 30,000 square feet for the life sciences, and that’s based on very successful life science and biotech spaces that we looked at around the world,” He said. “But there are also successful ones at 100,000 square feet and 200,000 square feet, so it depends on who our partners are there.”
The center is also hoping it can use New Jersey Economic Development Authority incentives, such as Grow New Jersey awards, to attract out-of-state partners.
“Grow NJ programs would be open to, particularly, venture partners that would be coming (from) outside the state to SciTech Scity,” Hoffman said. “There are industrial revenue bonds in New Jersey that nonprofits like SciTech Scity would be eligible for. We need to identify the venture partners first and then move with the EDA accordingly.”
The CEO said the center expects to file a site plan one year after it gets the title.
Both Hoffman and Lafuente said they hope SciTech Scity works as testing grounds for new technologies and strategies to be implemented in larger cities, such as Jersey City or even New York City.
“It will be a community that is very data-rich,” Hoffman said. “From the beginning, it will be a community that will be able to collect data on all the folks that are there. And that will be very valuable in terms of inventing the future.
“Whether it’s testing next-generation Fitbits and understanding people’s sleep and wake habits, the whole place will be wired for advanced data collection. And the kind of people that SciTech Scity is going to attract are people that will be into inventing the future.”
Liberty Science Center said it hopes these data are as public as possible, but that it is open to finding consensus with venture partners and investors.
“We’re building a ‘mini-city,’ but what it really is, is a living laboratory for what people in cities could be like,” Lafuente said. “It would be a shame to keep that to ourselves. Jersey City is a rapidly growing city, very diverse city that deals with multiple seasons, is very close to a really big city and deals with all those different transportation considerations.
“Really, we are in a prime area to create this living laboratory of a city and the kinds of data that we would be capturing is not just data that we would be sharing with just Jersey City, but eventually, with any city that is interested because that is ultimately what we’re trying to advance. The improvement of cities and the future of them.”
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