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This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the February 9, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Leading the Way at NJCST
When Sherrie Preische, the executive director of the New Jersey
Science and Technology Commission (NJCST), presented her first budget,
it caused a stir of controversy by eliminating one popular program
(the Technology Commercialization Center) to funnel money to another
(SBIR bridge grants). Meanwhile Princeton University's engineering
department, headed by Maria Klawe, appears to be trying to take up the
slack to help technology entrepreneurs to network and find the
resources they need.
Preische's budget, presented on January 25, allocated $4.9 million to
help high-tech entrepreneurs. It brought back Small Business
Innovation Research (SBIR) bridge grants and funded them to the tune
of $700,000. Up to 14 early-stage firms that have won Phase I federal
funding for feasibility studies will be able to get SBIR bridge grants
of up to $50,000 to tide them over while they wait for Phase II
Among the first three grant recipients is PharmaSeq Inc. at Princeton
Corporate Plaza on Deer Park Drive, founded by Wlodek Mandecki.
Mandecki uses ultra-small microtransponders and a fluidics-based,
bench-top flow reader for complex bioassays. His present project is to
build a two-color instrument for reading microtransponders to permit
Established in 1985, NJCST develops and oversees policies and programs
promoting science and technology research and entrepreneurship in New
Jersey. This year's budget allocated $820,000 to technology
incubators, such as the one in Trenton. Other monies include $2.3
million in final year funding for the R&D Excellence Program and $1.6
million for the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program. Commission
members also approved new programs to finance post-doctoral graduates
working at New Jersey businesses and to enhance programs to
commercialize university intellectual property in order to speed up
the transfer of innovations from lab to marketplace.
The axed program was the New Jersey Small Business Development
Center's Technology Commercialization Center (NJSBDC TCC). Until now
the TCC had had a full-time director, Randy Harmon. Since 1992, when
Harmon established his first technology help desk, he has been a
one-stop resource for developing and commercializing new technologies
and building science and technology-based businesses. Among his duties
was to stage SBIR grant-writing training programs.
Federal funds matched state funds to pay for the TCC until 2002, and
Harmon kept on going with just the state funding in 2003 and 2004.
Last year, according to Harmon, the Technology Commercialization
Center assisted entrepreneurs in winning $3.3 million in federal
grants and awards and $1.8 million in equity financing. In 2004 awards
for proposals that have completed the government's evaluation process
had totaled more than $2.4 million.
Now Harmon's allocation has been pruned from $100,000 to $30,000, and
his duties have been trimmed so that he gets paid only to administer
the SBIR workshops. The TCC's free-to-the-entrepreneur one-on-one
counseling is to be replaced by a volunteer network of successful
"After talking with entrepreneurs and reviewing existing programs, the
commission decided a new effort was needed," said Don Drakeman, CEO of
Medarex and chair of the NJCST, in a prepared statement. Drakeman was
appointed to the commission last year, as was Preische. "We are
providing new and increased business assistance programs that both
reflect our renewed focus on providing the tools New Jersey
technology-based businesses need to succeed and advance our mission to
promote new technology business that creates jobs in New Jersey."
One of Harmon's former clients, Rick Weiss of Viocare Technologies on
Witherspoon Street, does not believe the NJCST's plan for volunteer
counseling will work nearly as well as paying someone like Harmon.
Advice can be procured from many sources, says Weiss, and a volunteer
system comes with its own set of predictable problems. With paid
sources, there is always the question about whether the advice is
biased by the consultant's need for more business. "Randy was the only
one without skin in the game," says Weiss, who believes he benefited
from Harmon's counsel at every turn.
"When I think back to when I started. I couldn't have gotten into the
SBIR program without Randy's help," says Weiss. He has taken the SBIR
courses and now is a frequent guest speaker for them.
"In recent years I go less and less to Randy Harmon for SBIR grant
writing," says Weiss. "What I don't know and need his support for is
how to package my company to outside investors. We are not to the
point where we are guaranteed success in the future."
"He has the sense of knowing how small technical companies operate,
whereas consultants are operating only from their own experience,"
says Weiss. "He knows who is out there that may be geared to my
The NJCST's decision was "about making hard choices, it was nothing
personal," says Greg Olsen, founder of EPITAXX, CEO of Sensors
Unlimited, and a new NJCST commissioner. "It was a budget problem, and
it meant cutting out some things that were valuable."
Known for being informally available to give advice to tech
entrepreneurs, Olsen is the first volunteer enlisted by the NJCST to
provide counseling services; the NJCST says it expects to name at
least three more. "I consider it almost a duty to help other people,
because somebody helped me out. But I am not saying it is equivalent
to having a paid person."
Olsen points out that the ability to get the information you need is
an effective gate over which the new entrepreneur must learn to jump.
"There is just so much handholding you can do. Part of the requirement
for starting a company is the ability to find stuff out by yourself,
not going to an agency and saying 'help me.' If you can get through
each stage, that is what makes a successful entrepreneur."
"If a person is so shy that they can't overcome the barrier to bust in
and meet people - maybe they shouldn't do it. Asking people for money
is scary," says Olsen.
On Wednesday, February 2, Olsen helped organize the first of what
could be a series of programs at Princeton University's Friend Center,
co-sponsored by the university's engineering department, NJCST, the
New Jersey Technology Council, and the NJTC Venture Fund. Designed to
help new entrepreneurs network with experienced company founders and
funding sources, it featured more than a dozen successful tech
entrepreneurs. As Olsen introduced each one - more than half of them
had been the subject of U.S. 1 cover stories - he told how each had
started their businesses on the proverbial shoestring.
The entrepreneurs included Joe Allegra of Princeton Softech (who sold
his firm and is now with NJTC Venture Fund); Vladimir Ban (co-founder
of EPITAXX who then founded Photo Diode-Laser Diode in Hopewell; and
Steve Forrest who co-founded Universal Display and ASIP, and Cody
Eckert of Cody Eckert Architects. Darren Hammel, a recent graduate of
Princeton University founded Princeton Power Systems at the Forrestal
Campus. John Romanowich is a serial entrepreneur whose latest company
is called Automatic Threat Detection, Ken Kay, founder of the Helmsman
Group, later re-named eBudgets and sold to Microsoft.
The networking event worked. During the cocktail hour, people were
buttonholing and networking with zest, and then came the roundtables,
with each of the featured entrepreneurs rotating among tables of eager
"We said we would get 40 people," said a happy Maria Klawe, dean of
Princeton University's engineering department, "and we got close to
150 people. We sold out." She predicts that, with its central location
and its ability to attract participants, the university's engineering
quad can be a continuing resource for similar networking
The event was part of a broader effort to build a supportive
infrastructure for collaboration between the engineering school and
the immediate community in the outside world. "Princeton University,
and especially the engineering department, wants to be actively
involved in having an impact on technology development," says Joe
Montemarano, the university's director for industrial liaison. "Part
of that, clearly, is promoting the interactions between
entrepreneurial individuals and companies."
"We built on our past experience in bringing together entrepreneurs,
faculty, and students," says Montemarano. "We did manage, not only to
attract a large number of people from academia, the investment
community, and entrepreneurial companies, but also to engage them in
very very productive evening of conversation and pursuit of mutual
Randy Harmon attended the February 2 event, this time as an
entrepreneur himself. To continue counseling start-ups he has
established a consulting practice, Foundations Business Development
Group, 121 Pemberton Avenue, Plainfield, 908-754-3652, (E-mail:
firstname.lastname@example.org). "I love working with
entrepreneurs," says Harmon. "And I have what I have been saying every
entrepreneur needs - a spouse with a full-time job."
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