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'It's only a matter of time': New incubator, innovation campus have Trenton poised to become tech hub

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Kamal Bathla, managing director, Maestro Technologies, at the new SAI Center, which is becoming a co-working space in Trenton.
Kamal Bathla, managing director, Maestro Technologies, at the new SAI Center, which is becoming a co-working space in Trenton. - ()

“The Corner Historic,” where East State and West State streets in downtown Trenton meet, has been the intersection at which many notable events in New Jersey’s history have taken place.

It’s a location where George Washington dined; New Jersey ratified the U.S. Constitution; and was the meeting place of Congress for several months in the late 18th century.

In 1930, two years after the merger between First National Bank and The Mechanics National Bank, a new building was erected at 1 W. State St. to house the new First Mechanics National Bank.

Later to become the longtime home of the First Trenton National Bank, the structure sported the design and construction typical of the era — a granite and limestone combination with a neoclassical facade.

Decades later, the site has added another chapter to its historic significance as home of the city’s first incubator — a type of collaborative workspace aimed at helping startups get off the ground.

Tech services firm Maestro Technologies recently purchased the property — which became abandoned in 2013 after Wells Fargo left the 10,000 square feet it occupied on the first floor — and turned it into the Smart Applications Innovation (SAI) Center, where Maestro is now headquartered.

Maestro Technologies.
Maestro Technologies. - ()

Maestro relocated to Trenton from Wilmington, Del., after the New Jersey Economic Development Authority awarded it $17 million in tax credits — $1.735 million annually over a 10-year period.

“It’s a unique center,” said Maestro CEO Kamal Bathla, adding he hoped the “innovation hub” would cater to the tech and innovation industries.

So far, Maestro has opened up its own 14,000-square-foot incubator at the SAI Center, called TrentonCoworks, the first to be based in the capital city.

“In the incubator space, you have access to — and help — each other to see if somebody else has the resources that they could spare,” Bathla said. “Therefore you share the resources, you share the availability and the progress. … You’re part of the same network.”

And in August, the Trenton Health Team, a five-member community health care collaborative, opened its new office on the center’s fourth floor.

“When Maestro moved its headquarters downtown in Trenton, we felt that there’s a strong need to create that community setting,” Bathla said.

The SAI Center is six stories high, each with 14,000 square feet of floor space. The lower level is being designed to host conferences, summits and other meet-ups, Bathla said.

“With the city of Trenton, we found that there’s nothing else like that available, so we jumped in to create an environment setting like that,” Bathla said.

Trenton, he added, could potentially challenge Newark as the primary innovation hub in the state.

“So it’s only a matter of time,” Bathla said. “I’m not denying that Newark has access and availability, but Newark is not closer to Ivy League colleges. We have Princeton University and University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.”

Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora, who took office July 1, suggested Newark and Trenton would have more of a “friendly rivalry.”

“I think Trenton has the ability because the land is so cheap that there’s available architecture that companies can move into,” Gusciora said.

He pointed to the availability of four major rail lines moving through the city — the Amtrak line that connects Washington D.C. to Boston; New Jersey Transit’s Northeast Corridor Line; its River Line; and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s Trenton Line, which connects to Philadelphia.

And, the city possesses a strategic location, being halfway between New York City and Philadelphia.

That asset could attract businesses and the talent pools from both cities to naturally flow toward Trenton, according to Willard Stanback, a local lawyer who chairs the board of directors at the Trenton Downtown Association, which provides support services to the city’s businesses.

Also in the city’s favor, Stanback added, is its Innovation Challenge application was approved by the EDA in September.

The Murphy administration’s Innovation Challenge offers individual communities or groups of municipalities the chance to compete for planning grants of $100,000 to go toward strengthening their local innovation ecosystems. 

Trenton’s application calls for the creation of the Trenton Production and Knowledge Innovation Campus, in which five local universities will increase their physical presence at the Mercer County Community College-James Kerney Campus in downtown Trenton.

Under the plan, MCC will join with The College of New Jersey, Princeton University, Rider University and Thomas Edison State University to build out the downtown Trenton campus.

The TPKIC will be a “collaborative hub and a new research and commercialization nexus,” less than a mile from the Trenton Transit Center, according to the mayor’s office.

“If a company wants to start up [in Trenton], they know there’s going to be five colleges within 10 miles, so that the work pool is there and the education talent is there,” Gusciora said.

George Sowa, CEO of Greater Trenton, an economic revitalization nonprofit, said the TPKIC will serve as an entryway for Trenton’s high school students to “engage early on with Trenton students.”

The idea, Sowa said, is to “make sure that students and graduate students at these institutions stay in the area and engage in the area.”

In 2017, Maestro announced an agreement with MCC to begin offering its students paid internships, academic programs and tuition assistance for those who work at the company.

Sowa, Stanback and Gusciora additionally each highlighted Trenton’s No. 18 ranking in an October study by the information technology association CompTIA of the “Top 20 Tech Towns” in the U.S.

CompTIA’s study factored in the 9,447 tech jobs posted in Trenton in the 12 months preceding October, the potential growth for the number of available IT jobs and the median IT professional’s salary of $91,104.

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Daniel J. Munoz

Daniel J. Munoz


Daniel Munoz covers politics and state government for NJBIZ. You can contact him at dmunoz@njbiz.com.

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