Connecticut powers startups

Innovation Ecosystem

Sitting at a table with no more than her laptop, Judi Otton had all she needed to grow her new company.

Otton was working at New Haven’s The Grove, a coworking space of one of four entrepreneurship incubators, or “hubs,” across Connecticut receiving funding from Gov. Dannel Malloy’s new Innovation Ecosystem project. The Innovation Ecosystem, which the governor’s office revealed last October, is a $5 million public-private initiative intended to spur economic growth in Connecticut by supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs through a number of programs. Besides funding the “hubs,” which are located in New Haven, Hartford, Stamford and Storrs, the Innovation Ecosystem will provide mentoring and assessment services meant to support entrepreneurs statewide.

Last week, Mayor John Destefano Jr. attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for an extension of The Grove called The Grid, the New Haven hub located beside The Grove on Orange St. The Grid largely consists of new office space and will help roll out many of the Innovation Ecosystem’s new programs.

“We haven’t found a single state that’s attempting to create the type of network we’re trying to create,” said Tim Coates, managing director of the Innovation Ecosystem.

Five-sixths of the Innovation Ecosystem’s budget will go to the hubs, which will provide financial, technical, strategic and mentorship assistance to budding small businesses. Besides attending talks and networking events, small business owners may sign up for a diagnostic at a hub where experienced entrepreneurs evaluate a company’s growth potential.

If a company’s growth potential is great enough, the hub will open up all of its resources to the company. Hubs across the state have accepted 205 ventures thus far, according to Coates.

Otton’s company, which creates financial applications for small businesses, doesn’t have a name yet. But since starting two months ago, Otton has found the Grove’s resources valuable.

“It’s wonderful [here]. There’s so many people to collaborate with,” Otton said.

The Grove provides small offices, meeting rooms, storage space and a resource library, as well as free tea and coffee for its members. It also has open spaces with tables, where any member may work, or “hotdesk,” among fellow small business owners. To Otton’s left was a web developer, whom Otton said she asked questions from time to time, and to her right was a “branding guy” who was helping come up with a name for Otton’s company.

The Grove also provides more formal educational opportunities for its members. Otton took a course on creative learning, and every Tuesday morning some of the entrepreneurs get together for a “peer education group” where they discuss how to use social media over pancakes.

“[The best part is] meeting all these smart, creative entrepreneurs,” Otton said. “I want some of those entrepreneurial juices.”

A100, one of The Grove’s new programs funded by Malloy’s Innovation Ecosystem, seeks to equip university students with the computer programming skills many companies need. Krishna R. Sampath, A100’s program manager, said he sees an educated workforce as vital to the city’s future growth. He explained that New Haven companies do not think there is enough software development talent at the same time that many students who have that software development talent do not think there are enough jobs in the Elm City.

“There’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg problem,” Sampath said.

To eliminate this perception, Sampath added, A100 will link students to local job and internship opportunities.

Leaders at hubs around the state, including Hartford Innovation Hub lead partner Michelle Cote, also see their programs as helping their communities while making a profit. Cote — who is also executive director of reSET, a nonprofit that promotes social entrepreneurship in the state — said the Hartford hub was using its first year to understand the state of social entrepreneurship in Connecticut.

The Hartford hub’s Social Enterprise Accelerator Program, an initiative that helps scale and test the assumptions of a social entrepreneur’s businesses, is another one of the Innovation Ecosystem’s projects. It will be graduating its first 10 companies later this month, Coete said. The Hartford hub plans to run the Accelerator Program twice a year with the second run starting early this summer.

“It’s really all about increasing the number of community partners that Connecticut has in solving some of its most entrenched problems,” Cote said.

Looking forward, Otton said he sees a bright future for New Haven’s economic growth and culture of entrepreneurship, calling the city “a thriving place for business.”

Cote was similarly optimistic.

“We’re finally starting to bring all the necessary pieces together,” she said. “It’s a really exciting time to be in Connecticut.”

New Haven’s unemployment rate was 11.3 percent in December 2012.

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