Murphy wants to create innovative economy. How’s he doing?

We asked top scientist/legislator, Zwicker, to break down progress and look ahead

The target was obvious. For a state that truly was Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley, reclaiming its spot as a leading innovative economy is not a far-fetched dream, but a return to yesterday.

At least, that’s how Gov. Phil Murphy described it when he was candidate Phil Murphy.

Getting there isn’t as simple.

So said Andrew Zwicker, who doubles as both a physicist and a professor at the famed Princeton Plasma Physics Lab and an assemblyman representing the 16th District.

To coincidence with the release of the first-ever ROI Influencers: Technology list, we asked Zwicker if Murphy’s push to have New Jersey reclaim its global reputation is resonating in the science community.

“I would say, ‘We’re getting there,’” he said.

That’s hardly a precise, scientific answer, but Zwicker said the question is not easily answered.

“It’s so hard to measure this sort of thing,” he said. “When the governor says, ‘We were Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley,’ he’s right. But what the governor is really doing is pointing out the fact that we’ve got the highest density of scientists and engineers in the world.

“It may be a little bit simplistic, but, while Gov. (Chris) Christie’s approach was really focused on keeping businesses here, Gov. Murphy is trying to keep them here, but then also grow new businesses. That’s the innovation piece of it. So, you take all of that and ask, ‘How far along are we?’ And you can only say there’s been real progress.”

Zwicker points to the work of the recently restarted Commission on Science, Innovation and Technology and the potential of the recently signed bill that will create an Evergreen Fund as signs of hope.

Zwicker, a Democrat who is trying to take the state Senate seat of retiring Republican Kip Bateman in the 16th District this fall, spoke to ROI-NJ on all this and more. Here’s a look at the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Let’s start with the CSIT and the Evergreen Fund. How important are they to the desired innovation economy?

Andrew Zwicker: They are very important. We’re trying to branch into bigger, different places — and that’s a hard thing to do. CSIT is starting to get its feet underneath itself and really doing a good job. And the (Economic Development Authority) is starting to get you more money out on the street, if you will.

But, I think the game changer is the Evergreen Fund, which is where the state will invest in innovative companies. Now that it’s signed, it’s just a matter of standing it up and getting going. Money talks. And Evergreen will be infusing money into the private sector.

ROI: Are we changing the perception and reputation of the state?

AZ: That’s a subjective question. I think we’ve put all the pieces in place to get us there. It took us several years to get us to this point, but I think the pieces are in place.

ROI: Pieces is an interesting way of describing it — because there are so many pieces of innovation out there. As we move forward, should we concentrate in certain areas — such as biotech, cancer research, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, you name it — or should we be more broadly based?

AZ: I think the answer is both. If you look at Massachusetts, they’re very much focused on growing their biotech; they’ve done a great job. What should New Jersey do? I think we look at what we’re good at, but let things organically grow.

We already are strong on biotech and pharma, so that’s a natural place to start. But, we’re right across the river from Wall Street, so we have a decent amount of FinTech. That’s a place where you can really start thinking about growing it in the North.

You go down to South Jersey and you start thinking about aviation. You go to the Shore area, and we know we’re growing wind farms. So, you basically let things concentrate organically. Because New Jersey is not Massachusetts — we don’t have that corridor like they do around Boston — it means you can regionalize. It doesn’t mean you’re exclusive, but it means you regionalize, because, if you smear the peanut butter out too far, it becomes an issue because you won’t get to that critical mass of people and ideas.

The legacy of Beatrice Hicks

Beatrice Hicks was an American engineer, born in Orange in 1919 and educated at what are now New Jersey Institute of Technology and Stevens Institute of Technology. She is the first woman engineer to be hired by Western Electric. She co-founded the Society of Women Engineers and served as its first president.

She held a variety of executive positions and eventually became the owner of an engineering firm. During her time there, she developed a gas density switch that would be used in the U.S. space program, including the Apollo moon landing missions.

ROI: New Jersey doesn’t have all of its top universities in one corridor — but it does have a number of top universities. Is there enough collaboration going on? That’s not something the state has been known for.

AZ: I think it’s getting better. One of CSIT’s roles is to be that central hub. And, by being that central hub, it starts to break down the silos, whether it’s the RutgersPrinceton silo, whether it’s the private sector-university silo. It’s also about tech transfer, it’s about commercialization, it’s about getting stuff out of the lab and into the private sector.

Princeton has a certain name cachet. But it can’t go about it by itself. So, you’ve got to break that down. The question becomes how. I’ve proposed creating regional hubs — I call them the Beatrice Hicks Innovation Partnership, because I think it’s exactly that it is about trying to create, regional centers of excellence where you break down these walls.

ROI: How would you accomplish that — would certain areas be assigned certain things?

AZ: I don’t know if I would do it quite like that. It’s more about critical masses of people and startup spaces and incubator spaces and things like that.

It shouldn’t be, ‘OK, Rutgers, you’re in New Brunswick — you only do the stuff that’s going to go into the Hub.’ Part of this has to happen organically. My job, as a legislator, is to put the policies forth and mechanism in place, but then I have to hand that off to the universities and private sector and let it organically grow.