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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

grants.

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

quantitative bioassays.

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

entrepreneurs.

"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

background."

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

question askers.

"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

opportunities.

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

opportunities."

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:

rgharmon@foundationsbusiness.com). "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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