Technical.ly Philly reports: Can an incubator/coworking space give life to a Camden tech scene?

A merger between business incubators run by Drexel and Rutgers, and a little forward thinking, gave birth to the Camden CoLab. The space is about one-third full, but a forthcoming renovation aims to attract more startups

The Camden CoLab is becoming itself.

Those working to reimagine Camden, like the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, envision the 25,000-square-foot space on the third floor of the state’s sleek Waterfront Technology Center as a vibrant coworking and incubator space — an anchor of the tech community they believe can rise in the city.

It’s a partnership between Drexel and Rutgers, which used to run separate business incubators on different floors of the center, located a short walk from City Hall.

For now, the CoLab still holds relics of its past life as the Drexel-run incubator for companies that contract with the Department of Defense. In the last two years, Washington scaled down its military budget and companies moved out, leaving behind empty offices, endless rows of taupe cubicles, a nondescript kitchen and the photocopying and printing nook, where a laminated sign with two bulldogs destroying papers offers a friendly reminder to “Always shred your sensitive unclassified!”

In other words, it doesn’t look like any incubator we’ve ever seen. But that’s going to change, said executive director Suzanne Zammit.

They’re knocking down some of the cubicles to make the open coworking space bigger. They’re repainting, getting new furniture and forgoing the Department of Defense wall decals for new artwork.

They’re even installing a ping pong table.

Even before the redesign, the CoLab has attracted members, like pre-launch startup Tassl, health IT startup Plas.md and Pamela Bey, the Camden native who runs her own web dev and tech curriculum firm and recently launched Girl Develop It South Jersey (the CoLab hosted the opening party).

The space is about one-third full, Zammit said. Other tenants include companies that remain from the Drexel incubator days, like Channel Logistics and Health OnVector, and some from the Rutgers Camden Business Incubator, which until recently operated in the same building. (Fun fact: RJMetrics got its start at the Rutgers Camden Business Incubator. Here’s why it moved.)

The Drexel and Rutgers incubators merged a few years after Gov. Chris Christie shut down the state’s Commission on Science and Technology, Zammit said, because it was hard to get funding for those types of initiatives. The CoLab is the result. The Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, a leading economic development outfit behind a number of Camden beautification and economic development programs, helped facilitate the merger and also oversees the vision for the CoLab.

“Our mission is to support the growth of local businesses and foster the expansion of entrepreneurship in Camden,” said Jake Gordon, vice president of Cooper’s Ferry, in an email. The CoLab, he said, “is designed for innovators and entrepreneurs that want flexible office space and a collaborative community.”

Which begs the question: will they come?

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That question grew louder on our deserted walk from the CoLab to the PATCO stop outside City Hall.

But Zammit is hopeful.

“The startup community will go where the resources are,” she said, ticking off free parking (the CoLab overlooks the Delaware River and also a large parking lot), connections to investors (the CoLab hosted a recent Angel Venture Fair event) and tax incentives, like the Grow NJ Assistance Program. The CoLab is also hosting this weekend’s Startup Weekend for Women. Search firm Webimax got $12 million in tax incentives to relocate to Camden from Mt. Laurel, Lockheed Martin got an even bigger deal to open labs in the area and even the Sixers are getting in on some of the action.

“Camden is on a comeback mission,” she said, “and the incubator is a very big part of that.”

Prices start at $100/month for a desk in the coworking space and $250/month for a dedicated desk. Get in touch here.

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Juliana Reyes began as lead reporter at Technical.ly Philly in July 2012. Previously, she was a city services beat reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, as part of a project called “It’s Our Money.” She is learning to drive, learning to bike (in the city) but is an expert at taking SEPTA. She grew up in North Jersey and Manila, Philippines but she left the tropics for Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in linguistics. She now lives in West Philly.

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