The Push to Nurture New Businesses in Trenton

The NJEDA Innovation Challenge Grant aims to boost citywide growth.

The iconic "Trenton Makes" sign on the Lower Trenton Bridge was first installed in 1935, when the city was a leading manufacturer of steel, rubber, wire rope and other goods. Courtesy of Bloomberg/Getty Images

Like most municipalities, Trenton is all-in when it comes to ideas for spurring new businesses and creating new jobs. One new initiative, designed to boost innovation in Trenton, is underway thanks to a $100,000 grant from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA).

The NJEDA Innovation Challenge Grant aims to increase opportunities for economic growth in select New Jersey cities by increasing the number of small businesses, providing better access to STEM jobs, attracting top talent and employers, and building an entrepreneurial culture.

For Trenton, as a recipient of the Innovation Challenge grant, the objective is to commercialize research and innovation through its proposed Trenton Production and Knowledge Innovation Campus (TPKIC), a planned facility that would host a consortium of five Mercer County-based institutions of higher learning: Mercer County Community College, Princeton University, Rider University, the College of New Jersey and Thomas Edison State University.

The vision behind TPKIC is to build a collaborative, research-driven incubator and makers’ campus for existing and start-up innovation-economy businesses; local creators; students and faculty at partner colleges and universities; and Trenton Public Schools students and recent graduates. TPKIC will be a place where people of all skill levels and interests can learn how to turn an idea into reality; develop a concept, product or business; and create something they only dared to dream up while growing their skills and finding their passion.

“We like to think of it as inclusive innovation,” says Trenton Mayor W. Reed Gusciora.

TPKIC’s planned opportunities will include educational (and fun) afterschool and summer activities for K-12 students; internships, fellowships and apprenticeships for college students; incubation and commercialization resources for researchers, businesses and entrepreneurs; and maker-space training and access for all members of the Trenton community.

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Through this initiative, says Gusciora, the city hopes to ensure that many of the spin-off businesses founded in Trenton stay in Trenton. “The effort is not oriented toward creating one or two major employers,” says Gusciora, “but dozens of smaller businesses in Trenton that will benefit the local job pool for our students and entrepreneurs. Beyond the business opportunities created by the research itself, TPKIC and its incubation resources will be deployed to help entrepreneurs from Trenton and all over the region take advantage of Trenton’s unique and nearly unrivaled concentration of tax incentives to assist with the financing of start-ups, as well as small- and medium-sized businesses’ expansion.”

The TPKIC campus will give the five consortium colleges a footprint in Trenton, the state capital. Possible TPKIC locations include the current Trenton Transit Center and Mercer Community College’s downtown campus, which would be expanded. Gusciora says ground could be broken “within the next two to three years.”

NJEDA CEO Tim Sullivan says the Innovation Challenge illustrates the “spirit of innovation” found in New Jersey. “We designed the Innovation Challenge to help communities take the next step forward in building an inclusive, sustainable culture of entrepreneurship and innovation,” he explains.

According to Gusciora, an architect has begun planning the TPKIC facility. “We also are continuing talks directly with the consortium colleges as well as the state EDA to look for funding sources,” adds the mayor. [Editor’s note: The NJEDA grant to Trenton falls outside the Grow NJ program, which is currently under review by a state task force.]

TPKIC’s ultimate goal, says Gusciora, is to a build a knowledge-economy pipeline through local academic partnerships. “Any Trentonian looking to learn new skills…can follow their vision and find everything they need at TPKIC.” 

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