Murphy’s big win: Getting Nokia to stay in state is governor’s biggest STEM success to date

Shortly after taking office on a pledge to rebuild an innovative economy that reflected New Jersey’s glorious STEM past, Gov. Phil Murphy got some really tough news: Nokia Bell Labs, the company that put the state’s innovation efforts on the map — the company that made New Jersey into Silicon Valley before there was a Silicon Valley — was looking for a new home.

And it would not necessarily be in New Jersey.

“It was a three-alarm fire,” Tim Sulivan, then new to his role as the CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, recalled. “And the governor was all over it. His leadership was a big key to this success.”

What could have been disaster has turned into the governor’s greatest success in his quest to create an innovative economy — one the governor, the EDA and many others celebrated Monday when Nokia Bell Labs formally announced it not only is staying in state, but it will anchor the HELIX, a three-building campus of innovation in the heart of New Brunswick.

The company will bring more than 1,000 jobs to a 350,000-square-foot site that will be a new model for innovation in a new world when it opens in 2028. It not only will have the facilities necessary to help Nokia Bell Labs retain its unofficial title of the world’s best lab (10 Nobel Prizes will do that), it will eagerly form partnerships with academia and the tech ecosystem to ensure others will benefit from the move, too.

Nokia Bell Labs officials said they chose New Brunswick over two dozen other locations — around the country and around the world — for all the reasons Murphy has been pitching as chief salesman of the state.

Peter Vetter, president of Nokia Bell Labs Core Research and co-leader of the facility, said as much when asked why the company stayed.

“It’s the talent; it’s the long history of innovations,” he said.

Vetter noted the proximity not just to great New Jersey schools (Rutgers University, Princeton University, New Jersey Institute of Technology and Stevens Institute of Technology) but also to great schools on the East Coast (Columbia University, New York University, Cooper Union, the University of Pennsylvania).

“It’s the access to the talent, it’s our current talent — and the ability to grow that,” he said.

Thierry Klein, president of Nokia Bell Labs Solutions Research and the other co-leader, said the diversity of sectors in the state was a key, too. He noted New Jersey is a leader in sectors outside of telecom, including logistics, manufacturing, transportation and energy, among other areas.

“It’s also the opportunity to partner with those companies, and then create new solutions together with them,” he said. “So, it’s a strategic area for us as a company, and it’s a great research opportunity to work with others.

“We believe that innovation really happens at the intersection of disciplines and in the intersection of industrial sectors. It’s not just about our sector, it’s also about bringing technologies together to advance all sectors.”

It’s unclear how seriously Nokia Bell Labs considered moving out of the state. One thing is certain: When company officials fully understood what New Brunswick and the HELIX had to offer, the search was over. The ability to build to suit — and create from scratch a work environment that will draw the next generation — was an easy sell, Klein said.

“Once we saw the site, it was like, ‘I think that’s the one that checks all the boxes,’” he said. “We did all of our pros and cons and spreadsheets and tried to make it as unemotional and as pragmatic and rational as possible … but it was basically unanimous when everybody saw it.”

The decision, which came more than 18 months ago, put an end to the hair-on-fire concerns that it created — and it only gave Murphy more reasons to sell the state’s two biggest assets, talent and location, which he did throughout a recent nine-day economic mission trip to Asia.

“New Jersey plays very well, internationally,” he said. “It’s our diversity. It’s our curiosity. It’s the welcoming ambiance and literature, welcoming policies to international people and international enemies.”

It’s also the science, Murphy said — noting that New Jersey has the highest concentration of scientists and engineers per square mile in the world.

“And I think it’s fair to say that Bell Labs had a lot to do with that over the past many decades,” he said.

That’s why it was so important for Bell Labs to stay here. That’s why it is one of the biggest wins of the Murphy administration. That’s why that day back in 2018 was so concerning.

Bell Labs is New Jersey.

Sullivan has seen that since his first day on the job.

“As the governor said, ‘It’s hard to think of institution, an organization, an entity that is more fundamentally, quintessentially linked to the notion of the innovation economy, not just in New Jersey, but around the world, than Bell Labs,” he said.

“I’ve been doing this job for almost six years, and I don’t think there’s been a time when we pitched New Jersey when the phrase ‘Bell Labs’ doesn’t escape our lips as evidence of who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going. And, now, that story is made even stronger.”