Why these tech start-up founders are moving to Camden

Overheard amid the caffeinated networking of the UP Conference at the Waterfront Technology Center in Camden:

"We do T-shirts."

"It's about creative engagement."

"I'm a turntablist."

Or as featured speaker and Linkednoodle.com founder Katrina Naidas, 27, put it: "We're an online platform that links people with teachers who actually exist, not with online tutoring videos."

Saturday's lively information-sharing event for tech-oriented entrepreneurs was sponsored by Waterfront Ventures.

The nonprofit is the initiative of two young friends who moved to Camden from the suburbs and are now living and doing business in the city.

"We wanted to provide an opportunity for people to get advice from investors and from other start-ups that have received funding," said Johnathan Grzybowski, 28.

His four-year-old firm, Waterfront Media, is a design agency that offers marketing and branding services.

"The conference is a chance to learn that, 'Hey, I could start my business in Camden,' " Grzybowski said.

There is indeed new energy in the city - and not only around the Subaru and Holtec sites and other major projects under construction thanks to state tax incentives.

Downtown, despite acre after acre of vacant lots, some vintage structures have been renovated.

The Art Deco gem of the former Pierre apartment building on Cooper Street is being brought back to life.

And a handful of professional offices and other commercial tenants have filled long-empty spaces along Cooper, Market, and Third Streets.

Given the Rutgers, Rowan, and Camden County College campuses, "there's [already] a large population of students and start-up entrepreneurs going to school here," said Khai Tran, 27, who grew up with Grzybowski in Cherry Hill.

He is one of the founders of the online publication Ownersmagazine.com.

"We're trying to foster community," said Tran. "We need more people to be willing to come here."

The crowd was young and racially diverse, although current city residents seemed few in number, activist and former Camden school board member Sean Brown observed.

(Although City Hall did not have a visible presence at the event, Camden County Freeholder William F. Moen Jr., who lives in Camden, was on hand.)

The audience heard from experts such as Marc Kramer, executive director of Philadelphia's Angel Venture Fair. His firm connects investors and start-ups.

"If you're starting an app company, there are lots of reasons to be in Camden," Kramer said, noting downtown's good mass-transit services and proximity to Center City.

"Young people like grittier neighborhoods," he added. "They like loft spaces and low-cost areas where they can get started."

They also need to know that "people are doing cool things here," said Grzybowski.

At a display table, Adam Woods, owner of Camden Printworks, was silk-screening and giving away - "in exchange for a business card," he said - dozens of sleek gray T-shirts bearing the words, "City Invincible."

Chiseled on the southern side of City Hall, the famous words of Walt Whitman also are the name of an architectural practice - formed by the merger of four suburban firms - opening within a few weeks in a grand former bank building at Second and Market.

The co-working space, called Waterfront Labs, on the second floor will become the new home of Waterfront Media and Owner's Mag, with room for more than 20 other small tech companies.

"We saw what was going on in Camden and we wanted to be part of it," said architect Angelo Alberto, a City Invincible principal.

The 3,000-square-foot co-working space will attract "young people who want to be in an up-and-coming, affordable place," he added.

And Dan Rhoton, executive director of Hopeworks 'N Camden, said his respected tech-training program for city youth could be a pipeline of qualified job applicants for start-up firms.

Naidas, who grew up in Marlton and earned a B.A. in psychology from Rutgers-Camden in 2012, launched her firm as a result of the first UP Conference in Camden, in 2016.

She plans to open at the City Invincible co-working site in March.

"I'm coming back to my roots here," Naidas said.

"It's really exciting."

kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

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