The Innovation Scene

Posted on 10. Dec, 2011 by in Points of Departure

I paused before entering The Grove, a sleek “coworking” space on Orange Street. Someone inside opened the door for me and said, “Don’t be shy.” In fact, I was hardly noticed. It was a Sunday afternoon, and Startup Weekend New Haven, a three-day marathon of networking, pitching, coding, and designing, was drawing to a close.

Startup Weekend, a nonprofit organization, has been holding similar marathons around the world since 2007. This was the first in New Haven. Eighty participants from across the country attended between November 11 and 13. Most were from the New Haven area, but others hailed from New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Ohio. They included adults, students, and a precocious adolescent from Catherine M. McGee Middle School in Berlin, Connecticut.

Later that day, fourteen teams would demonstrate their work to an audience of about 140 people. The winner would receive funding, legal services, Web hosting, and space to develop the project—all crucial ingredients for a new business. With the deadline fast approaching, team members—many of whom hadn’t met before Friday afternoon—were scrambling to finalize business pitches and polish their work.

They were sleep-deprived and over-caffeinated, but their enthusiasm was still obvious. “Things get done when people roll up their sleeves and do work together,” said event organizer Derek Koch. The eventual victorious startups were Shuga Trak, software for teenagers with diabetes that connects glucose meters to mobile phones; MeritBooster.com, a Web site to raise money for youth projects; and SociaBO, a dating app. One of the founders of MeritBooster.com was that lone thirteen-year-old, Keshav Patel.

There are currently around fifty startups in New Haven, most of them in information technology or biotechnology. Connecticut Innovations operates a program at Yale’s Science Park that gives tech startups office space and access to resources. That program has reached capacity, and new venues—among them The Grove and another called The Bourse—have opened to provide more working space for startups. They encourage “coworking,” or collaborative work in shared space.

Those familiar with the New Haven startup scene say that the city has plenty to offer entrepreneurs. Ben Berkowitz is one of the founders of SeeClickFix, a New Haven-based company that allows people to report neighborhood issues to their local governments online. He finds New Haven a “less distracting” place to work that is still convenient to New York City. He may be biased—he also designs and sells popular “New Haven. It’s better than your town” T-shirts—but New Haven’s startup scene is certainly more successful than Hartford’s, Bridgeport’s, or New London’s. The concentration of talent and resources here has reached a critical mass, creating a city that is financially and socially appealing to those wishing to start companies.

In October, Governor Dannel Malloy launched Startup Connecticut to promote this entrepreneurial culture throughout the state, investing $25 million a year for the next five years. Startup Connecticut belongs to the Startup America Partnership, a national organization created to give entrepreneurs funding and guidance. Startup America unites an alliance of private-sector organizations while pushing for public policy that would make the entire country more hospitable to entrepreneurship. Connecticut is only the third state to have its own chapter.

Connecticut has traditionally hosted fewer new startups and small companies than other states. New York City and Boston dominate the entrepreneurial scene in this part of the country. But Connecticut’s strong educational institutions and established engineering companies, such as Pratt & Whitney, United Technologies, and General Electric, could help the state to encourage new businesses. Those behind Startup Connecticut hope to transform the state into a model of entrepreneurship by harnessing these resources while providing generous funding and tax breaks.

Entrepreneurs and their funders don’t always see eye-to-eye on the best way to turn the state into a startup hotbed. The goal of Startup Connecticut is to create many jobs quickly. Its stated mission is to “launch many more startups in a much shorter timeframe” while also supporting smaller firms, according to its Web site. But some entrepreneurs say it can take time to develop the right conditions for good new companies.

Miles Lasater, an entrepreneur involved with Higher One, which aims to help universities with their financial aid systems, wrote in an e-mail that building a productive environment for startups could take decades. “It will take sustained attention and work by all the players to continue to focus,” he wrote.

Startup Connecticut is an ambitious endeavor, and experienced entrepreneurs note that new projects may take some time to enact. “Creative development takes time, though it is true that creativity can happen in a flash,” said Jonathan Feinstein, a professor at Yale’s School of Management. “It can take years to lay the groundwork for those creative moments.” Still, although the effects of Startup Connecticut remain to be seen, most agree that Connecticut is a much more exciting place for entrepreneurs than it was even six months ago.

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