Innovation U.: Murphy showing how reconnecting with universities is enabling N.J. to reinvigorate its reputation with startup community

Gov. Phil Murphy — as he has done since he was candidate Murphy — was retelling the story about how New Jersey had lost its way with the startup community.

This time, however, there was a key point.

The state, the governor said, largely had been able to maintain its relationships with the biggest companies, but, during its “darkest days,” it had lost its connection to other key piece of the startup puzzle: institutions of higher education.

That clearly has changed.

Murphy was speaking earlier this month at the announcement of NJ FAST, the fintech accelerator the state is creating (and leading the funding for) along with Prudential Financial, globally leading venture firm Plug and Play Tech Center and — most importantly — Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, where NJ FAST will be located.

It was similar to what he said a week before, when the importance of Rutgers University – Newark and New Jersey Institute of Technology were noted at the ribbon-cutting for the hard tech accelerator created by HAX in Newark. And, in April, when the state held the first New Jersey Artificial Intelligence summit at Princeton University, which is housing and leading the state’s AI Hub.

“The higher ed piece is incredibly important,” Murphy said. “When we had lost our way as a state, we never really lost our way with big companies — for the most part, they hung in there.

“Where we had never found our way was an effective pipeline of so-called translational research, or commercialization of research, that was done at institutions of higher ed.”

Tim Sullivan, the CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, which is helping to fund these initiatives, said the connection cannot be overstated.

At NJ FAST, he said Stevens — both its professors and students — would be a huge part of the “intellectual horsepower” that fuels the accelerator.

“Startups tend to come from universities, so these kinds of collaborations are really important,” he said.

And now, seemingly everywhere.

Sullivan pointed to the HELIX in New Brunswick, where Rutgers will be a big part of the translational research that will be done there — and is a reason that the state’s most famous research facility, Nokia Bell Labs, was drawn there.

The same will be true at the still-being-built SciTech Scity at Liberty Science Center, which will feature Edge Works, an eight-story incubation hub that will work with higher ed institutions.

And then, there’s the National Science Foundation grant to do research in photonics, a potentially $160 million effort that is being co-led by Princeton and Rowan University (and 10 other universities) along with leaders in industry.

“You’re really starting to see the meat on the bones of the governor’s innovation strategy,” Sullivan said.

There is likely more to come. Murphy said as much at Stevens.

“We’re already thinking: What are the other verticals we could sort of do something like this around,” he said. “I think the virtuous combo is the EDA, an institution of higher education, a big corporate sponsor or two, and somebody who’s really good at accelerating.

“I think you’re going to see more of that. And I think, now, we are big time on the map on the startup community.”

It’s a connection every college and university welcomes.