Can an incubator/coworking space give life to a Camden tech scene? - Technical.ly Philly

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Dec. 2, 2014 12:43 pm

Can an incubator/coworking space give life to a Camden tech scene?

A merger between business incubators run by Drexel and Rutgers, and a little forward thinking, gave birth to the Camden CoLab. The space is about one-third full, but a forthcoming renovation aims to attract more startups.

The entrance to the Camden CoLab. The wall-hangings will be taken down and this space will be turned into a lounge space.

(Photo by Juliana Reyes)

The Camden CoLab is becoming itself.

Those working to reimagine Camden, like the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, envision the 25,000-square-foot space on the third floor of the state’s sleek Waterfront Technology Center as a vibrant coworking and incubator space — an anchor of the tech community they believe can rise in the city.

It’s a partnership between Drexel and Rutgers, which used to run separate business incubators on different floors of the center, located a short walk from City Hall.

For now, the CoLab still holds relics of its past life as the Drexel-run incubator for companies that contract with the Department of Defense. In the last two years, Washington scaled down its military budget and companies moved out, leaving behind empty offices, endless rows of taupe cubicles, a nondescript kitchen and the photocopying and printing nook, where a laminated sign with two bulldogs destroying papers offers a friendly reminder to “Always shred your sensitive unclassified!”

In other words, it doesn’t look like any incubator we’ve ever seen. But that’s going to change, said executive director Suzanne Zammit.

camden colab2

(Photo by Juliana Reyes)

They’re knocking down some of the cubicles to make the open coworking space bigger. They’re repainting, getting new furniture and forgoing the Department of Defense wall decals for new artwork.

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They’re even installing a ping pong table.

Even before the redesign, the CoLab has attracted members, like pre-launch startup Tassl, health IT startup Plas.md and Pamela Bey, the Camden native who runs her own web dev and tech curriculum firm and recently launched Girl Develop It South Jersey (the CoLab hosted the opening party).

The space is about one-third full, Zammit said. Other tenants include companies that remain from the Drexel incubator days, like Channel Logistics and Health OnVector, and some from the Rutgers Camden Business Incubator, which until recently operated in the same building. (Fun fact: RJMetrics got its start at the Rutgers Camden Business Incubator. Here’s why it moved.)

The Drexel and Rutgers incubators merged a few years after Gov. Chris Christie shut down the state’s Commission on Science and Technology, Zammit said, because it was hard to get funding for those types of initiatives. The CoLab is the result. The Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, a leading economic development outfit behind a number of Camden beautification and economic development programs, helped facilitate the merger and also oversees the vision for the CoLab.

n3rd st camden

As seen outside Pamela Bey’s cubicle. (Photo by Juliana Reyes)

“Our mission is to support the growth of local businesses and foster the expansion of entrepreneurship in Camden,” said Jake Gordon, vice president of Cooper’s Ferry, in an email. The CoLab, he said, “is designed for innovators and entrepreneurs that want flexible office space and a collaborative community.”

Which begs the question: will they come?

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That question grew louder on our deserted walk from the CoLab to the PATCO stop outside City Hall.

But Zammit is hopeful.

“The startup community will go where the resources are,” she said, ticking off free parking (the CoLab overlooks the Delaware River and also a large parking lot), connections to investors (the CoLab hosted a recent Angel Venture Fair event) and tax incentives, like the Grow NJ Assistance Program. The CoLab is also hosting this weekend’s Startup Weekend for Women. Search firm Webimax got $12 million in tax incentives to relocate to Camden from Mt. Laurel, Lockheed Martin got an even bigger deal to open labs in the area and even the Sixers are getting in on some of the action.

“Camden is on a comeback mission,” she said, “and the incubator is a very big part of that.”

Prices start at $100/month for a desk in the coworking space and $250/month for a dedicated desk. Get in touch here.

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Juliana Reyes

Juliana Reyes became Technical.ly's associate editor after reporting on the Philadelphia tech scene for four years. She's co-president of the Asian American Journalists Association Philadelphia chapter and a two-time Philadelphia News Award winner for "Community Reporting of the Year." The Bryn Mawr College grad lives in West Philly, likes her food spicy and wears jumpsuits often.

  • Shannon Sofield

    I like the cube-centric, cold war feel of the space.

  • DTurner

    Terrible location, this really should be moved as close to City Hall or Broadway as possible.

    • MikesOnBikes

      It’s pretty close, already. It’s easily walkable.

      • DTurner

        I don’t know if walking through a giant, barren parking lot really counts as “walkable”, especially if this is competing with spaces right inside Philadelphia. I want to see this grow, but I just wonder if ignoring some of Camden’s biggest assets makes much sense.

  • thegreengrass

    I really appreciate the vision that people like Jake Gordon and Pamela Bay have for Camden. Someone has to make the investment for others to follow, and I appreciate what they and others are working on for the city. What Cooper’s Ferry needs to coordinate is a clustering of tech ventures if it wants to see this take off. For instance, Webimax has 100 employees, and they hope to double in Camden. They’re across the street from the L3 building where Lockheed’s is going to be leasing space. And the CoLab building is just across the L3 parking lot from there. The potential for a tech neighborhood is right there.

    The other thing that needs to happen, which I actually think *is* happening, is to change the conversation on Camden in a way that mitigates the reason behind RJ Metrics leaving (i.e., “barely anyone applied to work for them”). For the first time in a long time, crime numbers are down on average, you’re seeing groups affecting positive change for residents and visitors alike (Roosevelt Park Plaza is a great new public space across from City Hall and features art from NextFab studio and New American Public Art; Public Workshop came in and built a popup skatepark at 3rd & Birch; Cooper’s Ferry is hosting a series to bring people to neighborhoods they would never have a reason to visit through programs like the popular Camden Night Gardens), there’s new investment in education in the city, and abandoned homes are going to start being demolished. There’s actually an incredible number of moving parts in the city right now, it’s exciting. And even downtown there’s changes on the horizon, with a new Rutgers-Camden/Rowan nursing building going up, the LEAP Academy renovating the beautiful old skyscraper at Broadway and Cooper Streets, renovations going on all around City Hall, and maybe even Dranoff finally converting his building next to his wildly successful apartment building on the waterfront to offices and retail. For the first time in a long time, companies are even building housing on empty lots and renovating historic buildings in the Lanning Square area around the medical buildings.

    But back to the idea of a tech scene in Camden. The next big step toward the successful nurturing of the nascent scene is for some trusted outfit with social cache to make the jump and invest in the city, someone like a La Colombe to open near Rutgers-Camden, which is just a few blocks from all of this. Just having a cluster of buildings isn’t enough to sustain a tech scene; you need to have things people *want to be near*. I know Cooper’s Ferry understands this, and I think they’ll be more than willing partners with whoever comes in to the city to help make it desirable for workers who previously passed up on employment there.

    Overall this is just one part of a larger changing reality in the city, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

  • jmaj

    In order for this to work they need to rethink their pricing. It needs to be much more competitive in my opinion.

    $2k a month can get you a private office at some co-working spaces in NYC, why is it that much in Camden NJ as well?

    With Venturef0rth, Indy Hall, Culture Work and etc just being a few Patco stops away, how will they compete at that price structure?

    • thegreengrass

      Definitely a fair point. I’m sure Victoria Gilbert at Coopers Feery would love to hear your thoughts. Shoot her an email at vgilbert@coopersferry.com.

      • jmaj

        Sure, I’ll on an email. Thanks for reaching out!

        • thegreengrass

          Awesome! Of course, no problem at all.

  • sfisc

    Hey! I work at Channel Logistics! Too bad I didn’t know you guys were coming.

  • ctc82

    Walking past the methadone clinic and county jail in one of the most dangerous cities in the United States makes this space extremely attractive.

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