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OP-ED on Innovation Ecosystem

Matthew Nemerson, President and CEO Connecticut Technology Council

Thursday’s official launch of a coordinated effort to perfect and manage a state Innovation Ecosystem marks an important step towards increasing levels and success of entrepreneurial activity and new company formation in Connecticut.  What’s more, by addressing the subtle but critical role of networks and ongoing attention to the needs of the community of high potential firms it represents a sophisticated appreciation by  Governor Malloy’s economic development team about the need for a comprehensive plan to grow jobs with support for innovation at its center.

From Eli Whitney in the 1970s to Jonathan Rothberg today  Connecticut has a rich legacy of innovative minds and companies who have built and been part of networks and whole ecosystems that have brought the state not just one company or invention, but billions of dollars of value and whole industries worth of jobs.

Throughout our history state businesses have successfully adapted to changing local and global conditions and reinvented their products and their companies thanks to the power of establishing world leadership in broad areas of skills and techniques.  The power of networks and connections has been the secret source of our little place in a big global marketplace.

The state’s new brand, Still Revolutionary, is a not so quiet reminder that, while some places are inventing themselves for the first time, Connecticut, from hardware, to clocks, to carriages, to bikes, to aircraft, to new medications has reinvented itself as a global leader in the nation’s key industries in every half century for the past 250 years.

But this strength, a clear competitive advantage for Connecticut, has not been fully capitalized on in any meaningful or strategic way over the past few decades. The post-industrial decline of great industries stripped our key cities and the state of key parts of our rich and deep innovation traditions and connections.  The best path to return Connecticut to sustainable growth includes establishing strong networks that align our resources with the digital and information based industries – biotech, finance, insurance, aerospace, media and information systems – that we know can flourish here.

This is the goal of the new innovation ecosystem effort. This new model is a blueprint for how a state can partner with many parts of the private, educational and institutional sectors to create a dynamic, entrepreneur-responsive environment where innovators can tap into the resources they need to grow and thrive.

Here’s how it works:

Four hubs will be established in Stamford, Storrs, New Haven and Hartford that will assess all local resources and then work on a case by case basis to connect startups and existing firms with the potential to grow with the people, services, funds and attention they need, when they need it.  The hubs will also share and compare what they have and what they need with the other hubs.  All of this activity – still powered and led by the energy and initiative of Connecticut’s native and attracted entrepreneurs – will be monitored and fine-tuned by the efforts of a team our organization will lead along with the state’s Economic Resource Center.  Nothing and no one will fall through the cracks and scarce resources will be applied where they are most needed.

Studies that our group conducted in 2010 showed that the lack of strong and helpful networks was one of the most sought after conditions among our most successful high growth CEOs. The ecosystem programs will create a true public-private partnership to benefit and drive innovation.  It is a great sign that the Governor and his team have the confidence to allow this to be an organic, learn as you go, bottom-up, innovation community-based effort.

The bottom line for the state and its citizens will be over time an increase in Connecticut’s innovation “output” – the number of new startups and the number of mid-size firms that will be able to invest in innovation to stimulate growth.  Firms from all industry areas will be impacted. This is not picking winners, but laying out a red carpet for those that have the highest likelihood of rapid growth.

This will strengthen the state’s global reputation as a home for innovation.  In today’s world the key is to have companies and people who are destined for success to choose to come or stay here. Only one out 50 firms will be a true fast grower. We need to increase the number of these who want to and can grow in Connecticut.

Finally, it is good to see that Governor Malloy clearly recognizes that a one-size-fits-all approach to economic development does not work. The First Five/Next Five program focuses on large companies and the Small Business Express program provides financing for the state’s small, established businesses.  Now the innovation ecosystem will target our becoming a leader in high growth startups and fast growing smaller firms.  Ironically, Connecticut today has what is probably the finest state supported venture capital program in the country, Connecticut Innovations. The ecosystem will deliver a stream of new opportunities that will be worthy of this key state resource to invest in.

For those of us in the in tech community, the understanding by the Governor and his team that networks and relationships as well as agile and quick signs of support are the currency of growing a modern economy is very good news.  Eli Whitney chose Connecticut to start his business here, as did Oliver Winchester and Igor Sikorsky.  They each saw and said that the environment – the ecosystem – was the best for their big plans.  Together they created networks and relationship we still feel today.  So the networks and connections made now will still be reverberating in Connecticut 200 years into the future. These are the stakes we are playing for today.

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