Sullivan: EDA’s new Office of Economic Transformation can be difference-maker for state

Tim Sullivan lightened up the crowd at the Stress Factory in New Brunswick last week with a few good one-liners.

“I have to confess, I have never played a comedy club before,” he said. “This is fresh material. Never been used. And I’ve usually been more of a song-and-dance man than a joke guy.”

But the new head of the state Economic Development Authority was serious when he explained to the crowd of more than 150 at the New Jersey Tech Council annual meeting how the EDA plans on using technology to spur the innovation economy that Gov. Phil Murphy is seeking.

“I think we share a commitment (with the tech community) on a prioritization with regard to the innovation economy and strengthening New Jersey’s position in it,” he said. “The governor talks about this all the time: This is the centerpiece of what we’re trying to do from an economic development perspective. How can we position ourselves to compete and win in the industries or the subsectors that are going to thrive in the 21st– and 22nd-century economy?

“Whether that means traditional technology, whether that means the disruptive elements of technology with the traditional strong businesses, whether that means biotech and life sciences, whether that means clean energy. (We want) anything that is R&D-centric that is based on and thrives on (research and development) and discovery and disruption.

“We have to own that future if we’re going to be successful.”

With that, Sullivan detailed three specific moves the EDA is making:

  1. The EDA has created the Office of Economic Transformation under Brian Sabina, a new senior vice president.

The office, which will work with Kathleen Coviello and the tech and life sciences team she heads up, is designed to develop significant expertise and focus on highest-growth sectors of the economy, Sullivan said. And do it in different ways.

“Economic development is not really a one-size-fits-all type of game,” he said. “You can’t just have large-scale incentives. You have to have some incentives, and they have to be thoughtful: How do we leverage our ability to make investments on an industry-by-industry basis, so we can really try and be helpful?

“I think it’s reflective of how Gov. Murphy is thinking about economic development in a bit more of a comprehensive and bottoms-up approach, thinking about how we have to go sector by sector, area by area, location by location to make sure that we’re making smart, targeted strategic investments in the industries and the towns and in the capacity we think we’ll need to compete in the innovation company.”

Sullivan was quick to say the office won’t go it alone.

“It involves partnering not only with municipalities, but institutions of higher education and with the private sector, both large and small,” he said. “We can’t do it alone. We have to be sort of an activating agent. We can’t be the drivers of these things. It’s our job to be a good partner and play whatever role you can play in the given situation, but it’s really important for us to have a partnership mentality and a partnership set of skills.”

  1. The EDA is giving new emphasis to programs that already exist.

Sullivan pointed specifically to the Technology Business Tax Certificate Transfer Program, called NOL.

“We have a bunch of programs (that) I think have sort of flown under the radar in the last several years that we’re really proud of,” he said. “The NOL program is a really exciting program that I think has not gotten the attention it deserves, and I think it’s a really valuable tool that sets us apart from our competing states.”

The program, which has gotten a push from the Tech Council, is doing better than ever, Sullivan said.

“I’m really proud to report or announce that we have (a) significantly increased number of applications and steadily increased volume of dollars requested under that program,” he said. “We’re oversubscribed for the first time in a while, possibly ever, and that’s a good thing. We do think it is a competitive advantage and a real distinguisher for New Jersey.”

  1. The EDA has launched the Innovation Challenge to bring more money to urban areas.

The challenge is a way to give money to programs, Sullivan said.

“This is trying to help our city’s population centers do some planning for their own innovation ecosystems,” he said. “It’s all the things that we’re talking about: capital and ecosystem and real estate and culture.

“We’re trying to empower our local communities, in particularly our cities, where we think that the innovation economy battle will be won or lost. We want to give them the resources they need to put together the strategic planning to make the investments that we think we all recognize the critical catalysts to innovation.”

Sullivan said $500,000 in grants will be awarded.

“We’ll probably make five $100,000 awards to enable cities and mayors and local leaders to put together their own unique plans that recognizing the unique features and attributes of each place,” he said.

“What Newark needs is different … than what Camden needs, or any other place in-between may need. Some places have been at this for a while, doing their thinking and planning, and are much further ahead, some places are just getting started.

“We want everyone to be in the game in regard to planning for the innovation economy, and so we’re partnering with cities and towns to do that.”

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