There are those who believe that in the past several years, New Jersey squandered an opportunity to become more competitive as one of the country's “innovation economies,” be it through science, engineering or technology.
But Gov. Phil Murphy’s selection of former White House advisor Beth Noveck as the state’s first chief innovation officer is a clear sign things are changing.
Murphy, in his Aug. 13 announcement, said Noveck will be tasked with looking at new policies to promote the state’s innovation and tech sectors, as well as fostering collaboration between the state, higher education and the tech economy.
A Toms River native and engineering professor at New York University, Noveck was the first U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer and director of the White House Open Government Initiative in the Obama administration.
Noveck has been a fervent advocate for data transparency and open government. As a professor at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, she directs the Governance Lab and MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance.
“I think both creating this role, getting started with creating this office, this is meant to signal a real commitment to this set of issues,” Noveck told NJBIZ.
Noveck said she has three steps in mind for how she wants to meet the goals laid out in front of her.
First, she wants to explore how Murphy’s policy agenda could be met by bolstering the state’s innovation economy.
“So that’s going to mean collaborating with agencies to identify how tech, data and innovation can help to advance policy priorities, whether it’s education or health development … innovation economy,” Noveck said.
Second, she wants to secure state backing of the innovation economy and make sure New Jersey is tapping into its talent pool.
“We probably have more scientists and engineers per square mile than anywhere else,” Noveck said.
Third, she wants to cut red tape and bureaucratic impediments to the STEM economy.
“Most states are grappling with the same question: How do you take regulations that are designed to protect consumers – that have a very good purpose – but are often inefficient in their execution?” Noveck said.
An example: paper-based forms, where “you’re filling out your name and address 10 times,” while “in the digital age you can fill it out one time and auto populate the rest,” she said.
“The internal-facing agenda,” Noveck said. “The modernization and streamlining of government services, the lessening of [the] burden on businesses and individuals to comply with regulatory requirements.”
When Murphy became governor in January, the state already had myriad science and redevelopment agencies at its disposal.
There’s the Economic Development Authority, which awards tax credits to businesses to attract them to the state or keep them from leaving. The authority runs programs meant to bolster the science, tech and innovation sectors, according to EDA spokesperson Virginia Pellerin.
Programs include the Incubator and Collaborative Workspace Rent Initiative, which subsidizes rent for entrepreneurs who work out of incubators, accelerators or other collaborative workspaces.
There’s also the Technology Business Tax Certificate Transfer Program, Pellerin said, which allows qualified emerging technology and life sciences companies to sell their net operating losses from research and unused research and development tax credits.
And there’s the Commercialization Center for Innovative Technology and Biotechnology Development Center, both operated by the EDA and based out of its North Brunswick-based Technology Centre of New Jersey, a 50-acre research park on Route 1 with over 300,000 square feet of office and lab space.
“I tend to think about it as sort of tools in the tool kit, expanding the tools in one’s tool kit,” Noveck said. “There’s so much to do.”
And Noveck said she wants a sense of collaboration and transparency across the state’s innovation sector.
“Meet with stakeholders and engage with them, above all listening to people in terms of what’s already happening, what’s going on in terms of next priorities and really develop an early stage agenda,” she said.
One of the most recent moves undertaken by Murphy was the signing of a bill reinstating the New Jersey Commission on Science, Innovation and Technology.
It was a move he argued would help the state recapture research dollars lost to surrounding states over the past decade.
Murphy also announced his administration will be rolling out the ResearchwithNJ.com public database, which will include 3,000 faculty profiles from five research schools: Princeton University, Rutgers University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Stevens Institute of Technology. A sixth, Montclair State University, will join in the near future, Murphy said.
Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-16th District, a backer of the commission and physicist by trade, said the commission will allow stakeholders to “literally” come to the table.
“Innovation is arguably the most critical way for us to grow our economy,” Zwicker said. “It’s where the jobs in the country are, so we’re well-positioned for that.”
Like Murphy, Zwicker said he feels the Christie administration allowed the innovation, science and tech sectors to languish.
“We were a national leader and we completely slipped away from that,” Zwicker said. “We still have the infrastructure in place, but we’ve let it slip away.”
In the 2010 budget, Christie vetoed funds earmarked for the commission, leaving it effectively inactive until Murphy revived it.
The new commission will have a $1 million budget, and Zwicker said it will be a hub for startups and innovation. Its 16 members will include scientists, academics, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, he added.
Zwicker said he intends to roll out legislation in the fall to establish four incubators to partner with the commission – one in North Jersey specializing on cybersecurity and financial IT; a second in Central Jersey dedicated to life sciences and biotechnology; a third in South Jersey concentrating on aviation and agriculture; and one at the Jersey shore specializing in energy and “next generation transportation.”