May 30, 2016

Boosting CT’s innovation ecosystem smart policy

State lawmakers have taken on much criticism for their handling of state finances, but one area where they deserve credit is some of the economic-development initiatives they passed recently in special session.

In particular, policymakers' efforts to boost CTNext — a state-backed entrepreneurial network — and Connecticut's innovation ecosystem make a lot of sense, particularly in the wake of General Electric's decision to relocate its headquarters to Boston in search of a more tech-savvy culture.

As HBJ News Editor Gregory Seay reports in this week's issue, a cornerstone of the budget implementer bill passed by the House and Senate is a plan to invest millions of dollars to further develop the state's startup and entrepreneurship efforts to help retain and attract more young talent and grow jobs.

The plan includes giving CTNext greater independence and financial wherewithal to develop a mentor-network of serial entrepreneurs and fund startup ventures. It also opens the door for Connecticut's municipalities, nonprofits, corporations and universities to pursue individually or as teams "innovation places'' designations that qualifies them to access a slice of the $90 million earmarked to fund CTNext over the next four or five years.

The goal of the innovation places is to create entrepreneurial clusters that attract talent willing and able to start new technology, bioscience and other startups. It's a similar strategy that's helped Silicon Valley, Boston and New York City attract some of the best, highly educated talent in the world.

To be fair, we aren't saying Connecticut's economy lacks innovation. In fact, Bloomberg ranked Connecticut the fifth most innovative state in the country in a January report that took into consideration factors like patent activity, science and engineering degree holders, and research and development activities.

Indeed, Connecticut's well-educated populace gives rise to many novel ideas and discoveries that are changing industry and the world. For example, in this week's issue HBJ has a story about a conformable natural gas storage tank developed at East Hartford's United Technologies Research Center that could boost the functionality and broaden the appeal of natural gas vehicles.

Connecticut does, however, need to raise its profile as an innovation hub and attract more startup ventures, which are the lifeblood of a growing economy. The only way to do that is to build a critical mass of activity that gains the attention of researchers and entrepreneurs from around the world.

Yale's Science Park and UConn Health Center's Farmington campus offer great building blocks to work with, but we need to further develop our urban cores, where young people, particularly Millennials, want to work, sleep and play.

And this can't be a government-led initiative. It must be a public-private partnership, in which the state helps set up infrastructure for developing a more innovative economy, but where entrepreneurs, businesspeople and investors ultimately dictate its direction.

The legislation revamping CTNext seems to understand that. For example, CTNext will now have its own board, constituted primarily by serial entrepreneurs who are better equipped to evaluate and mentor startups that come under its wing.

A concern about the bill is its potential $90 million pricetag, to be raised through bonded funds. We are still wary of the state's overreliance on grants and loans to businesses as a key driver of its economic development strategy.

And of course, Connecticut still must work on improving its overall business climate by controlling taxes and regulations that have marred the state's reputation as a suitable place for industry.

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