As thousands of brick-and-mortar retailers across New Jersey cautiously reopened on Monday, June 22, one new storefront in Montclair Center on Lackawanna Plaza welcomed customers and entrepreneurs for the very first time.
The Montclair Innovation Lab, a timely collaborative effort between the University’s Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship &Innovation (FCE&I) and community partners like the Montclair Center Business Improvement District (BID), is at the heart of efforts to breathe life into the local economy while creating opportunities for student and community entrepreneurs.
Throughout the Innovation Lab’s opening day, visitors came and went – masked and appropriately socially distant – sampling wares, watching demonstrations, and talking to the creative minds behind the collaboration at the Lab at 10 Lackawanna Plaza just off of Bloomfield Avenue.
“Montclair State University has been interested in having an off-campus presence in downtown Montclair for a while,” says Feliciano Center Executive Director Carley Graham Garcia. “We feel fortunate at the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation to be the team to do it. Never was there a more important time to support innovative ideas, student and community startups, small businesses and the innovation economy in New Jersey.”
Garcia noted that the University was working to debut the incubator space this spring when COVID-19 hit. The Feliciano Center quickly pivoted to what was needed: a production facility for personal protective equipment (PPE) that wrapped up its work in late May after producing more than 30,000 units of face shields and delivering them to area hospitals and medical facilities.
Now the focus has shifted from the health impacts of the pandemic to the economic reverberations.
Garcia explains that the Lab, which is a two-year pilot project, will include a mix of 3D printing operations and business pop ups, scaling the learnings of the Feliciano Center’s MIX Lab – an on-campus facility that has fostered student/community innovation around 3D printing since its founding in 2015. The new Montclair Innovation Lab will expand that effort to provide more help to the Montclair business community as well as increased opportunities for students.
Until the Montclair Innovation Lab can offer co-working and in-person events, it will focus on supporting the winners and applicants of the Feliciano Center’s 2020 Startup Montclair annual pitch competition.
They include a diverse group of entrepreneurs and business concepts, such as Dr. Floss – a one-time use, eco-friendly device that flosses all teeth simultaneously; Garbage Wine, a process that converts food waste to wine; SoLo’s Food, online ordering and delivery of healthy, affordable Soul and Latin food; Cloud Card, customizable business cards for easy electronic sharing; and Roncero Reiki/REIKIDS,a mindfulness program specifically created for kids.
Other entrepreneurs are also on deck, such as Vett News, a content management system that journalist and Montclair resident Paul Glader reports will revolutionize audience engagement and corrections for news media.
“We are truly excited to be working with the Montclair Innovation Lab,” says Diamonique Lundy of SoLo’s Food, who served up smoothies and chickpea, chicken or beef sandwiches on the day of the launch. “We feel supported and better able to launch our business during this unstable time.”
She adds, “The Lab allows us to cut down on some overhead expenses by selling from the pop up space. The physical space gives us better visibility to gain new customers.”
“The opportunity to have Montclair State in a hub in the center has been a dream of ours and the University for at least a decade,” says Jason Gleason, executive director of the Montclair Center BID. “We’re super thankful to Carley and everyone at Montclair State.”
“Montclair has such a deep, rich well of doers and thinkers and innovators and that entrepreneurial spirit,” Gleason continues. “To have Montclair State’s resources, to bring people into an actual space, this is a great opportunity for students to get an idea of what business is like and cultivate that talent right here in Montclair.”
Montclair State alumna and photographer Jennifer Bladel ’07, whose photography exhibit titled COVID-19 Small Business Project adorns the Lab’s walls, agrees. She heard about the Lab through Montclair Mondays, a series of webinars supporting Montclair businesses produced jointly by DesignShed, parent company of Montclair Design Week, the Montclair Center BID and the Feliciano Center.
“I live and work in Montclair and I’ve been following Carley on Montclair Mondays which has been such a pivotal platform for small business owners to come together and get the lowdown on what was happening in the short term and long term,” says Bladel.
“Because of that, I reached out to Carley.” Bladel’s photos tell the stories of local business owners who “are the fabric of our town and make it so vibrant.”
“Our underlying missions complemented each other so well,” says Bladel of the Innovation Lab.
Although Bladel’s photos can be viewed at villagestudiophotos.com, Garcia hopes visitors will stop by to see the exhibit and the Montclair Innovation Lab in person during its hours of operation: Monday -Thursday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“We are open to the public. We want this space to feel accessible, like it belongs to the community.”
And expect those hours of operation, as well as programming, to expand. Garcia envisions collaborating with Montclair Center BID to program events in Crane Park on weekends this summer. (Gleason says he has obtained the permits.) Garcia is also hoping to be able to partner with local community groups and nonprofit organizations like the YMCA.
“Stay tuned,” says Garcia.
“It’s just the beginning,” adds Gleason.
Story by Staff Writer Mary Barr Mann