Murphy tabs The Hub @ New Brunswick to be centerpiece of N.J.’s push to join innovation economy

The Hub @ New Brunswick has been in the works for some time.

Leaders at the New Brunswick Development Corp. and Rutgers University have longed dreamed of creating an environment where technology and innovation could thrive in a community that resembled Kendall Square in Boston.

And while a marketing agent, JLL, was announced more than three years ago and the land across from the train station for the 1.7 million-square-foot mixed-use development project was cleared in the past 18 months, the transformative project got a boost in energy Monday afternoon, when Gov. Phil Murphy announced the state is fully behind the project in a meeting with dozens of top leaders in the state.

“For too long, New Jersey has been left out of the growing national innovation economy,” Murphy said.

“By creating a site where high-growth industry can thrive, New Jersey will begin to foster new ideas and take advantage of the once-in-a-generation chance to remake the state as an engine of economic opportunity.”

Murphy said the state Economic Development Authority, led by Tim Sullivan, will do what it can to assist in the project.

Devco President Chris Paladino said he welcomed the state’s involvement.

“It’s a play that probably should have premiered years ago in New Jersey,” he said. “It’s something that we and Rutgers have been taking small steps toward. Give the governor all the credit in the world to come in and kind of supercharge this concept.

“We have had discussions with the governor going back a year. Now, it’s becoming a priority.”

The idea, Paladino said, is simple at is core.

“It’s place-making,” he said. “It’s creating an ecosystem where innovators want to work and where they’ll want to live. It’s about mass transportation; it’s about housing; it’s about retail and entertainment.

“Conceptually, it was always kind of a vision of ours. As companies started to really focus on their potential relationship with the state university, either in shared science, technology transfer or the attraction or retention of employees, we kind of hoped we would start to see these types of synergistic relationships start to develop.”

Paladino did not want to put a timetable on how quickly tenants could be signed or how soon the first buildings will go up.

“We’re talking to a number of potential anchor tenants in a variety of sectors, everything from life science to technology,” he said. “I think it depends on who we can get to be the first anchor tenant and then how do we leverage that to create incubator space, academic space, etc.

“We’re hoping in the first two to three years to have a significant portion of the site done. The completion of the first phase is where we are welcoming the first tenants, we’re working on the next component and we’re going into the ground on the third component.

“You have to start to get a rhythm on these sorts of things, but I’m also feeling that, once we get some traction, that timetable will accelerate.”

Paladino thinks the concept will resonate with businesses.

“Corporate America has learned that they can’t go out on a highway with a security gate and keep their scientists from talking to other scientists,” he said. “They want to be in places where they are not only interacting with academics, but they are interacting with their competitors — and competitors become partners.

“This is really about putting academic research and folks who have the ability to create startups and established technology or innovation companies in one place. You just have to hope for creative collisions.”

The key, Paladino said, is letting it happen organically due to proximity.

“If you look at innovation districts throughout the world, nothing gets forced,” he said. “If you put the right people in the right place, you’ll get the right kind of chain reaction. Then, you hopefully will be able to develop the resources to be able to start an incubator that potentially will have a private sector partner and certainly a partnership with Rutgers.

“What you really hope happens is that you start to attract venture capital and these companies start to grow in place.”

The move was lauded by business and academic leaders around the state.

Rutgers President Robert Barchi, New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge), Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Skillman) and Johnson & Johnson Chairman and CEO Alex Gorsky were among those in attendance who applauded the efforts.

Barry Ostrowsky, the CEO and president of RWJBarnabas Health, said the timing — and location — is perfect.

“New Brunswick is ideally situated to host the Innovation Hub due to its promise as being the premier academic medical center corridor in the region, with its rich collection of higher education, health care and technology,” he said. “We thank Gov. Murphy for his visionary leadership and dedication to making the state an innovation destination.”

Paladino said he is confident the project will pick up steam with the state’s involvement.

“When you’re charged with having the EDA as your partner in doing a lot of the planning and structuring, it certainly does accelerate things faster than you could have hoped for,” he said.

“The governor certainly got 35 or 40 people in a room that no one else would have been able to. That shows you the importance this project has to him.”