Camden becomes a player in a surprising industry

January 21, 2008 7:29:43 AM PST
With established defense contractor L-3 Communications, Drexel University research and dozens of upstart operations in a business incubator, the city has become an unlikely hotbed in the field. "We're hoping to focus more on the defense-related industry," said Caren Franzini, chief executive officer of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. In the past six years, some 700 jobs, most technical in nature, have been added in a city with virtually no middle class. During that time, the upstart firms in one Camden business incubator have landed more than $100 million in military contracts.

"It creates job slots that people can get if they can get a quality education," said U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, a Democrat whose district includes Camden, a city of 80,000 across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.

Much of the defense industry research and product development is taking place at the Applied Communications and Information Networking Program, or ACIN, which is home to a business incubator and research done by faculty and graduate students at Philadelphia-based Drexel. Federal grants, including one awarded last year for $4 million, subsidize the operations and marketing costs of the operation where about 250 people work.

Projects include preparing a system to analyze information about ships spotted by cameras off the coast of the United States, teaching robots to work together and systems to deliver data through cell phones.

For decades, Camden has been suffering. It's always included on lists of the nation's poorest and most crime-ridden places. A century ago, the city was booming and technology was a big part of the reason.

In 1901, the Victor Talking Machine Co. set up here. It built an early record players, including the Victrola, and recorded musical stars of the time. Since then, a related company - by now distantly related - has remained on the city's waterfront. Through mergers and spinoffs, the business was part of RCA, then General Electric, Martin Marietta and Lockheed Martin. By the early 1990s, what remained in the city was a division of L-3, a defense contractor specializing in intelligence-gathering tools. It now has about 1,200 employees in Camden. In the late 1990s, Andrews joined the House Armed Services Committee and became interested in why the military lagged years behind in technology.

That's when he became a proponent of trying to get private businesses to create military uses out of commercial technology. ACIN was designed largely to do that. It opened in a warehouse rented from L-3 with no fanfare in 2001. Now, it's housed on one floor of the two-year-old Waterfront Technology Center. Sometimes robots on wheels zip around the otherwise-vanilla maze of cubicles and offices.

Half of another floor of the building is occupied by Gestalt, a company that, with 280 employees worldwide, outgrew ACIN. The firm, which does military consulting and develops battlefield computer simulations, was bought last year by the big consulting firm Accenture, but has said it will stay in Camden.

Most incubators charge upstart companies based on how much office space they get. But at ACIN, companies pay $350 per employee each month. That covers office space, phone lines, Internet connections, copies, coffee - and, more important, advice from the center's leaders.

Lou Bucelli, the entrepreneur in residence, has experience getting companies off the ground. And its general manager, Ed Celiano, has experience contracting with the military.

Brad Blumberg, CEO of a company called Smarter Agent, said the low overhead cost is why he decided to move into ACIN more than five years ago as one of its first occupants. The company makes a program for cell phones that use global positioning system technology and information from a variety of sources, including public records to real estate listings. At the push of a button on a standard cell phone, people can get information about nearby apartments for rent. The company is adding a version for home sales, too. But there's also a government application.

Blumberg said he'd like to sell versions to public agencies like homeland security organizations and fire departments. Firefighters could use it to find out instantly if a burning building has any registered hazardous materials. And relief workers dispatched during a disaster could find information about a devastated home, he said.

Blumberg said he is not especially loyal to Camden. If his company, which he expects to have 20 employees by springtime, outgrows ACIN, he will go where the economic deal is best. But on at least a small scale, his company has boosted the local economy. The CEO and his employees have spent so much time at one restaurant that its menu has a salad called "the Smarter Agent."