5 big questions about the future of tech in Camden - Technical.ly Philly

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Oct. 23, 2018 1:24 pm

5 big questions about the future of tech in Camden

Building a strong tech corridor might be key for the City on the Rise. What might it take to actually get there?

Camden and Philly as seen from PATCO.

(Photo by Roberto Torres)

The storyline of Camden, N.J., as a City on the Rise that’s overcoming its troubled past could be at a pivotal moment.

The stats on crime seem to say so, with official data showing a double-digit drop in violent crimes during the first nine months of 2018. Go back just five years and you’ll find the South Jersey city atop a list of the country’s most dangerous.

Per some local leaders and entrepreneur types, the evolution is also starting to show in the local business community. One recently rebranded small business group wants innovation to be part of a rising tide that lifts Camden’s profile to support the drop in Camden’s poverty numbers.

When it comes to growing a tech ecosystem across the bridge in Camden, what’s the roadmap? As with any transformation, it starts by answering a handful of targeted questions. Here are a few:

Can Camden lure the talent it needs to spur entrepreneurship?

No matter where companies are based, tech talent is sparse. Locally, companies like Penji, goEmerchant or Monster Roster will need to attract and retain the developers that make their tech run.

Meanwhile, at Hopeworks Camden’s new HQ, executive director Dan Rhoton is looking past just luring. Inside a 6,000-square-foot headquarters, Rhoton is connecting Camden youth to training in web development, digital marketing and other fields.

What role will anchor institutions play?

Glassboro, N.J.-based Rowan University, with its Camden campus 15 minutes away, has a Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. It hosts hackathons and has a VR research hub. Rutgers, which quietly shuttered its Camden Co-Lab innovation space, has a few research labs at its Camden campus. What is academia doing to spur entrepreneurship amid its graduates?

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Subaru, the Sixers and their Innovation Lab, and controversial energy industry supplier Holtec among others companies that have relocated to South Jersey could — like Comcast and Penn do in Philly — beckon tech talent into the area.

Can Camden tech exist without all those questionable tax breaks?

A lot of that business relocation, no doubt, is fueled by $1 billion in state tax breaks.

But, as Inquirer columnist Kevin Riordan puts it, promises of jobs in exchange for tax breaks have routinely gone unfulfilled. Should taxpayers be footing the bill to benefit politically connected business leaders?

Will venture capital find its way across the river?

You’ve heard this selling point to investors: Back Philly companies and your VC dollars will go further than in New York. But they’ll go even further in Camden, where operating costs are even lower.

Still, despite a weak 2017, venture capital flows more freely on the Philly side of the Delaware river. Access to capital might be on its way, though: Earlier this month, N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy proposed a $500-million fund to pump resources into Jersey-based startups. Khai Tran, CEO of Camden-based Penji, said the news were well received in Camden.

Will it be diverse?

Camden, like Philly, is a minority-majority city according to U.S. Census data. Will the next generation of tech companies in Camden also face diversity challenges?

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