On a recent weekday morning Dylan Yingzhe Hu demonstrates a product that his startup technology company, SpaceTouch, has been developing at Princeton University’s newly opened Entrepreneurial Hub, an off-campus incubator and co-working space for Princeton students, alumni, and faculty.
In the corner of his small office stands a shiny black kiosk with a 42-inch screen displaying an Apple watch. Standing about a foot from the kiosk, Hu reaches out his hand and swipes the air. The display changes to show another watch. He swipes again, and another watch shows up. Then he swipes upwards, pulling up more information about the watch. Next door, at the company’s lab space, Hu’s colleague and co-founder, Liechao Huang, is busy working on a circuit board.
This is the technology that Hu’s company has been developing for the past two years: an interactive display surface that allows users to directly control electronic devices simply by gesturing in the air.
Hu recently obtained his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Princeton University and is the CEO of SpaceTouch, a company he cofounded with Huang, who is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in the same department; Aoxiang Tang, another electrical engineering Ph.D. graduate; and Naveen Verma, an assistant professor in electrical engineering.
Hu, dressed in jeans, a gray sweater, and a blue pinstriped button-up, says he plans to keep developing SpaceTouch in this office at the Entrepreneurial Hub for “another year or two.”
“It’s awesome here,” he says, noting the classic essentials of modern-day technology start-ups. “It’s quiet, there’s food, there’s entertainment, a ping-pong table. They have everything here.”
SpaceTouch is one of two companies currently renting office space at the new Entrepreneurial Hub in downtown Princeton. Zoomi — a learning technology and machine intelligence analytics company — occupies another office, while three other companies are currently in discussions with the Hub.
The Hub opened in June and is located at 34 Chambers Street, in a 10,000-square-foot, two-story space leased by Princeton University. It houses the university’s accelerator and incubator programs, run by the Keller Center, which was founded in 2005 with the mission of innovating education and fostering entrepreneurship.
“Entrepreneurship and innovation is something that New Jersey has traditionally been very strong and very proud of, from Bell Labs to Edison, this is something that we as a state have been traditionally doing an outstanding job in,” says Mung Chiang, the director of the Keller Center and a professor of electrical engineering. Chiang also chairs the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council, established in July to oversee entrepreneurship programs at the university.
The Hub is part of an effort by Princeton University to make entrepreneurship more front and center to its educational mission. It offers open co-working space for startups founded by Princeton students, faculty, and alumni, and also hosts education programs like workshops, seminar series, and fireside chats, which are open to the greater Princeton community.
“This is not just a co-working space. This is also an educational and collaboration space,” says Chiang. He is excited to see the Hub as a “new venue for collaboration,” where the university will be able to work with the local entrepreneurial ecosystem in a “town-gown collaborative synergy.”
As an entrepreneur himself, Chiang recognizes the importance of having a dedicated physical space for companies to work together. “A balanced, experienced, and stable team is the most important part of a venture, and the lack of such a team is often the fatal flaw of university startups. The Hub will help serve as a physical anchor for entrepreneurs to meet each other and complete and grow teams,” he says.
Chiang says he sees the Hub as another step toward making Princeton a more exciting and enticing destination for startups. “By providing a vibrant community of entrepreneurs and investors and professional service providers with a labor market that is vibrant and robust for startups, we can hope to see more of these young, energetic companies to stay in and near Princeton,” says Chiang. “There are a lot of opportunities in New York, Boston, D.C., and a lot on the west coast, and we would love to see more of that here closer to our home.”
It will take time to fully develop Princeton’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, and the Hub is only a small piece of the larger puzzle. “First of all we have to set the expectations right. We have to be very patient. None of these local ecosystems were built over a couple years’ time. It takes a generation of efforts to be vibrant and stable. You need to go over the threshold of critical mass. Just this Hub itself won’t be enough.”
What is needed and welcomed, says Chiang, is the participation of entrepreneurs in and around the Princeton and central New Jersey business community, as well as from the belt between New York and Philadelphia. Chiang hopes to see these entrepreneurs participating not only as speakers or attendees at events, but also in different capacities as collaborators, mentors, and team members on emerging startups or customers to the companies. “It’s a multifaceted set of values. We need all of them. Some will be happening faster than others. We’ll be patient and let the exciting synergies gel one by one.”
Chiang’s entree into the Princeton business community came in part through an informal group of investors and entrepreneurs called the Third Friday group, which includes Scott Sipprelle, Chris Tyrrell, and Drew Peloso, among others. Spurred on by Chiang’s energy, some participants in the informal group launched Princeton Innovates (Pi), described on its website (www.princetoninnovates.org) as “a community organization being created by local teachers, technologists, and entrepreneurs with the mission to elevate the quality and quantity of technology education and entrepreneurship in the Princeton community.”
The group invites interested entrepreneurs and investors to a “pro action cafe” on Saturday, November 14, from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Entrepreneurial Hub at 34 Chambers Street.
All this town-gown interaction is music to the ears of Chiang, who was born in China and grew up in Hong Kong, and then moved to the U.S. as a teenager. His father is an oil portrait artist and his mother is a retired high school teacher. Chiang spent his student years at Stanford — a time that he describes as “a lot of fun” — and received his undergraduate degree in 1999, as well as his Ph.D. in electrical engineering there in 2003.
Chiang’s academic research focuses on communication, social, and economic networks, but over the years he has also branched out to establish himself as an entrepreneur. He is drawn to entrepreneurship, Chiang says, because “it has been one of the effective ways to further sharpen fundamental research and to turn scholarly publications to societal impact.” He has also co-founded two tech startups — DataMi, which focuses on wireless-telecommunications technology, and Zoomi, a learning technology company (where he is also the chief technology officer) — and serves as a technical consultant to several startups. All this entrepreneurial experience, Chiang says, has taught him the importance of the team: “Who before What.”
With its bright orange and lime-green walls, a natural-light filled co-working space equipped with whiteboard-topped tables, movable whiteboard panels, and green swivel chairs, as well as various office spaces, an event room, and a conference room, the Hub may resemble any modern library.
“The space isn’t that much different from the Lewis Library,” says Jared Crooks, referring to the university’s science library designed by the acclaimed postmodern architect Frank Gehry. “And the free Wi-Fi is like the free Wi-Fi you get everywhere on campus. So that physical space itself isn’t that different. But having the physical space shows the commitment that the university has to furthering entrepreneurship.” It feels very good “to own a piece of something,” says Crooks. “It makes me feel that I’m an entrepreneur and that I can really take part.”
Crooks is a Princeton University graduate and the CEO and co-founder of Bodhi Tree Systems, a biotech and IT company working to streamline the workflow of protocols of clinical trials. (“It’s like Turbotax for clinical trials,” he explains.) He and his team of four spent 10 weeks this summer at the Hub as part of the Keller Center’s annual eLAB summer accelerator program, which was launched in 2012. The program, which was previously held at the university’s engineering school, is now housed at the Hub together with the semester-long incubator program.
“The fact that there is a building [dedicated to entrepreneurship] speaks volumes,” says Crooks. “It provides a boost to your young entrepreneurial self-esteem.”
“The Hub was a launch pad for us to really hone in to what mattered to our business,” Crooks adds. Already, he says, Bodhi Tree Systems “has its first big prospective client.”
This is not the first time Crooks has participated in an incubator program or launched a startup. After earning his undergraduate degree in astrophysics in 2011, he returned to Princeton in the fall of the same year to pursue a joint masters degree in public affairs and mechanical and aerospace engineering. While pursuing his graduate degree, he launched Nouri Bar, a snack bar company, together with his wife. By 2012 Nouri Bars were being sold at Whole Foods and by this summer, it had sold more than 100,000 bars.
Crooks, who just graduated with his master’s degree this year (he put the degree on hold for two years to work at NASA), is once again staying on in Princeton — this time to build his company. New Jersey being the land of pharmaceuticals is “a pivotal reason for sticking around,” he says.
With companies like his setting up shop in Princeton, does Crooks think that the town can become a hotbed for startups? He sees the potential. “What Princeton is trying to do is create an ecosystem,” he says. But he also points out that “it’s not trying to replicate Silicon Valley — that would be stupid.”
“I see it becoming an evolution of Silicon Valley,” rather than the next Silicon Valley, he adds.
Chiang is pondering the same question. “I’ve heard so many times before this summer, from so many friends, investors, entrepreneurs, and service providers in central Jersey: ‘Why don’t we have something like what they have in New York, in Cambridge, in Silicon Valley, in Boston, in Seattle? How can we make this a vibrant community of entrepreneurs?’” he says.
It will all depend on a conjunction of efforts and initiatives coming from both the university and the greater community. Chiang points to the many different efforts that are already going on in the area — the New Jersey Entrepreneurship Network, New Jersey Technology Council, New Jersey Economic Development Agency, and the Princeton Tech Meetup group, which boasts close to 4,000 members.
Mayra Ceja, the entrepreneurial program manager at the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council who also oversees a fund for young alumni startups, sees the ground shifting in Princeton. “Pieces are falling together” in Princeton, she says. “It’s a confluence of things that transform places.”
Ceja, a 2003 graduate of Princeton who then earned a Wharton MBA, was founder of Tiger Cub Advisors, a consulting firm with offices in the Bay area and New York. In 2013 she was elected president of the Princeton Entrepreneurs’ Network, an alumni group independent of the university that has been holding business plan competitions for the last 18 years.
As Princeton University throws its weight behind developing entrepreneurship, more and more opportunities for collaboration with the greater community will arise. TigerLabs, a micro venture capital fund on Nassau Street that also offers a six-month accelerator program and co-working space, and is unaffiliated with the university, is already looking forward to working together with the Hub.
“Long-term we hope to see investment opportunities coming out of the university. We’re looking forward to some great companies coming out of the university,” says James Smits, the program director at TigerLabs, and who is himself a Princeton University graduate, Class of 2012.
“Princeton and the surrounding area have all the ingredients,” says Smits. It has “fantastic research facilities” — not just Princeton but also Rutgers and the College of New Jersey — a lot of talent and recycled capital, and “lots of institutional power.”
“There’s no reason why Princeton town can’t become an entrepreneurial powerhouse,” he says. He sees “a great opportunity to build some fantastic lasting companies in Princeton” and also attract companies to the area.
“At the end of the day, there are many reasons to build a company in different places — and the company should go where it needs to go. But at TigerLabs, our job is to make Princeton a more enticing place to start a company” and to build a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem, says Smits.
Another initiative that is helping grow the entrepreneurship scene here is Princeton University’s Alumni Entrepreneurs Fund, which launched as a pilot scheme last year and is the first fund at the university to provide support to young alumni startups through matching funds of up to $100,000. SpaceTouch, the technology startup, is one of the fund’s six portfolio companies.
Ceja, who manages the fund, is thrilled to see entrepreneurship become “a word, an occupation, a mindset” and reach “a tipping point” around the nation and the world. “It’s exciting to be at the cusp of so much activity,” she says.
Such commercialization brings to mind the ongoing lawsuit against the university, filed by attorney Bruce Afran representing property owners who believe that the university is not entitled to its tax-exempt status because of its involvement in for-profit endeavors. Chiang, director of the entrepreneurship programs, declines to comment on the lawsuit.
But business people in the Princeton community seem enthusiastic about the university’s entrepreneurial initiatives.
The Hub may also make Princeton University more attractive to students who want to pursue entrepreneurial ventures during their college careers, says Drew Peloso, a Princeton resident who has helped develop and promote several startups in the Princeton community. “While Princeton has a rich history in innovation, it is still lacking in core assets that make up the building blocks of a community that kids want,” he says. Entrepreneurial students are attracted to schools like Stanford and MIT, and “it’s tough to compete with those places.”
Peloso, who earned his MBA at Cornell in 1996, senses a change in thinking at the university’s senior level. He notes that Chiang, who assumed his position as director of the Keller Center in 2014, strongly believes in the idea that the town and the university are “two legs of the same body,” says Peloso. The growing town-gown relationship has yielded encouraging results.
“The forward-looking vision is for there to be growth that is healthy economic growth for the town,” says Peloso, “and for the university and the town to build a strong productive relationship that ends up serving the community. If entrepreneurship is the medium for doing that, then all the better.”
In addition to his work with Princeton Innovates, Peloso is also creating a similar investment vehicle — the Princeton Fund — that provides opportunities for community members to support entrepreneurs coming out of the greater Princeton community, both town and gown.
All these endeavors will no doubt help grow Princeton’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“Rising tides lift all the boats,” says Chiang. “New Jersey needs more incubator and collaboration programs, including the university’s Entrepreneurial Hub, the Princeton Tech Meetup group, and TigerLabs, too. We are looking forward to strengthening the collaboration with these programs that serve different purposes than the Princeton Entrepreneurial Hub and present synergistic opportunities.”
Back at the Hub, Hu and his team are putting in 10 hours a day, seven days a week at their company. The whole company grew out of a Ph.D. project on extended range capacitance sensing, and Hu now thinks their technology can potentially replace touchscreens: think of surgeons scrolling through a patient’s X-rays or cooks browsing recipes without touching a screen with sticky fingers. And while these interactive kiosks are popular in Asia, they aren’t widely used in the U.S. Hu hopes to change that.
As Princeton’s entrepreneurial ecosystem takes shape, it’s not hard to imagine more companies like these emerging from the community.
“We, Princeton, have opportunities that are unique and interesting that we can capitalize on,” says Peloso. “We create interesting investing opportunities.” And there will only be more to come.
Entrepreneurial Hub, 34 Chambers Street, Princeton 08542. Stephanie Landers, program administrator. 609-258-3979. entrepreneurs.princeton.edu