Dave Sorin is an office managing partner of McCarter & English and Co-Chair of the Venture Capital & Emerging Growth Companies practice. His national practice focuses primarily on privately- and publicly-owned startup, early stage, emerging growth, and middle market technology, tech-enabled and life science enterprises, as well as the investors, executives, and boards of directors who support and lead them.
What did the landscape of the NJ entrepreneurial and technology ecosystem look like when you got started?
NJ can and should take great pride in our rich history of entrepreneurial and technological leadership. It is in our collective DNA. From Edison and Einstein, to leadership roles, at one time or another, in telecommunications, information technology, software, pharmaceuticals, alternative/clean energy and other technology sectors, NJ has an enviable history. We are the site of some of the great research institutions/colleges/universities in the world. We have a highly educated, incredibly productive workforce, including great scientists, engineers, technologists and innovators. We have been leaders in patent issuances per capita, evidencing our innovative and inventive culture. Unfortunately, however, past leadership (including government and business and professional leaders) often failed us and our historical successes may have emerged in spite of our great State’s weaknesses and challenges. When I first came to NJ some twenty five years ago, after practicing as a Wall Street lawyer focused largely on the money/investor side of practice, representing investment banks, private equity investors and venture capitalists, I recognized the potential of NJ, but I also saw our flaws. We suffered. NJ’s location —nestled between the overpowering urban centers of NY and Philadelphia often left us without a reputation or brand of our own. We allowed urban and urban centers, generally the hubs of commercialization, technological innovation, entrepreneurial fervor, and investors ready and eager to support them, to decay, leaving the state without a center of commerce or a center of influence for technology and entrepreneurship. We lacked (and continue to lack) a transportation infrastructure conducive to economic vitality and growth and we failed to invest in them. Back then, the colleges, universities, technical schools and other research organizations located in NJ often displayed a shocking lack of interest in commercialization. While Stanford helped to build Silicon Valley, Harvard and MIT the Route 128 Corridor in and around Boston, our colleges and universities left a void. Our region focused primarily on finance (the NY focus) and intellectual endeavors to the detriment of commercial ones.. Government policies failed to promote the right incentives, in fact the level of income and real estate taxes became a downright disincentive to business formation in NJ, and there was a total absence of any type of statewide networking, information sharing, lobbying or educational efforts to nurture, foster, enable and sustain the change we so sorely needed. Change that would, with purpose, laser focus and proactivity, create and support an entrepreneurial and technology ecosystem.
Fortunately for our entire state, in the mid-1990s, there was a small group of us – like-minded investors, bankers, quasi-governmental leaders and professionals – who joined forces with a local community organizer to begin to create the change we needed. Maxine Ballen, known to all of us, was leading a small group called South Jersey Entrepreneurs Network that sought to support economic development in the southern half of the state. Maxine was a lightning rod, a force of nature. I recall fondly an afternoon in the mid-1990s, when John Martinson, then head of Edison Venture Fund, John Bailye of Dendrite, Mel Baiada of Bluestone, Virginia Ailing of PNC Bank, Brian Hughes of KPMG (he was then a partner at Anderson), the late, great Caren Franzini, then leader of the NJ Economic Development Authority, and I, joined Maxine to in a small, crowded conference room to discuss the absence of any kind of statewide initiative to foster and sustain a truly viable, leading entrepreneurial and technology ecosystem, We were determined to act and so we did. Right then and there, each of us committed personal, professional and financial resources to an endeavor soon to be dubbed the New Jersey Technology Council, led by Maxine with this initial, albeit small, group of forward thinking businessmen and women comprised of the state’s leading venture capitalist, entrepreneurs who had succeeded in building two of the state’s great IPO candidates in technology, a leading banker, and an accountant and lawyer focused pit creating the change we needed. We even had the privilege of incubating the newly created NJTC in a wing of our law firm offices.