The soybean fields and peach-orchard remnants bordering the modern new building just off Route 55 in Mullica Hill demonstrate the transition from agricultural to high-tech that Rowan University's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is all about.
"This is where we hope a future is for tech jobs in South Jersey," said Sarah Piddington, the center's interim director. "Our purpose is to keep people around here who in the past have had to go away to be in tech."
The center provides research and laboratory space for Rowan students and professors and an incubator for tech-based businesses.
Brian Ruiz, one of the center's charter tenants when it opened in October 2008, now has eight employees - all current or former Rowan students - as he refines Strategic Billing Enterprise to try to break into what he believes is the burgeoning field of computerized medical billing.
Rowan has provided Ruiz professors for advice on issues from computer programming to accounting, as well as marketing seminars and the use of copiers and other office machines.
"If I had to rent space in some office park, I would probably have to get hundreds more square feet than I needed, and pay for that, plus all the connections to the school," Ruiz said. "I will stay here as long as they will have me."
The center will allow start-ups to stay as long as five years. Applicants have to submit a business plan to Piddington and a board, who decide whether products are viable and will provide jobs. Rowan seeks no financial stake in the companies, which the center says is unique to incubators in the region.
"We aren't looking for a piece of the action. Our motivation is to enhance the community, to find tech jobs, and make sure Rowan students have opportunities," she said.
Amber Conway of Williamstown helped create Ruiz's office-policy manual as part of a Rowan class. She graduated last month with a business degree, and Ruiz hired her as a saleswoman/office manager. She now shares his small office on the ground floor.
"I wanted to stay close to home, and this is an opportunity to be with a business as it is starting," Conway said.
A few feet outside Ruiz's office is a warren of desks and computers surrounded by partitions. There, David Leonhardt, a senior from Mantua, works part time on Ruiz's computer program. Leonhardt originally went to Drexel University, attracted by its co-op program, but he got a bit homesick and transferred to Rowan. He took a class from management professor Daniel McFarland, with whom Ruiz, through the incubator, had arranged for computer help.
"I get to be near home, and I get the co-op I thought I missed by leaving Drexel," Leonhardt said.
McFarland, too, thinks it is a win-win. "I got a project for my class to do, and Brian got benefit out of it. That is what this relationship should be at the university," he said. "This area has never had that before."
Rowan professors also are taking advantage of the space.
Thomas Merrill left a job in the private sector three years ago - having worked for several pharmaceutical companies - and began teaching mechanical engineering. He had been working on a device designed to cool the heart during angioplasty, which some research showed would be beneficial for recovery.
"I was working in my basement for three years," Merrill said.
When a spot came open in the incubator a month after he arrived at Rowan, he applied and received laboratory space to test and enhance the device. His company, FocalCool, is now doing the rigorous federal testing work.
He has eight interns, four part-time employees, and two full-time employees - all from Rowan.
"I get the availability of trainable engineers who want to stay here," Merrill said, "and I feel I am enhancing the community by doing that."
Three other companies are in the incubator. The ideal number is five to eight, said Piddington, which would leave space for current tenants to expand a bit, as Ruiz did.
Ruiz still is not making money from Strategic Billing Enterprise, so he has worked a series of part-time jobs, and his wife has always worked full time. The computer program he needed is complex, and he is just getting his first customers - beginning with ambulance companies.
He knows he eventually will have to "graduate" out of the incubator, but he intends to stay his full five years.
"No one can duplicate the advice, the connections to the university, and just the casual byplay I have with the other people trying to start businesses here," Ruiz said.
When he does leave, he does not intend to move far from Gloucester County, which has 9,000 businesses - more than 95 percent with 20 employees or fewer, according to Freeholder Director Robert Damminger.
"We're a home for small businesses, and we believe the incubator will provide more," Damminger said. "We have a good workforce here of people who want to stay here, and the incubator is another way of ensuring that."