May 14, 2018

Entrepreneurship hubs reSET and Upward Hartford collaborate to grow city’s startup, innovation scene

HBJ Photo | John Stearns
HBJ Photo | John Stearns
Ojala Naeem, managing director of reSET in Hartford’s Parkville neighborhood, said the organization’s programs and services appeal to a wide audience.
Photo | HBJ File
Shana Schlossberg, founder and CEO of Upward Hartford, is doing all she can to make her downtown operation and the city a national hub of innovation.
Jessica Dodge, Program Manager, CTNext

ReSET — a staple of the Hartford coworking and business mentoring and accelerator scene for entrepreneurs since it first opened a physical space in 2013 — has had to share the entrepreneurial startup stage since the larger Upward Hartford opened downtown in mid-2017 with a high-profile location and investors.

But even though they play in the same sandbox of attracting and helping grow innovative startups, the two organizations espouse cooperation over competition for the greater good of trying to build Hartford's confidence and reputation as a fledgling hotbed of startup activity.

In fact, reSET held its holiday party in December with Upward Hartford's, aiming to connect entrepreneurs and exploit each group's contacts as much as possible.

"We're also promoting their events and vice-versa, making sure we're there to support (them) in whatever way we can," said Ojala Naeem, managing director of reSET, coming off its latest Venture Showcase May 10 highlighting the top eight startups that emerged from its 2018 Impact Accelerator program. The top three, chosen by judges, won investments after pitching their business models to an audience of founders, investors, and community and corporate stakeholders.

"At the end of the day, we want this (entrepreneurial) ecosystem to be better," Naeem said. "We want Upward Hartford to succeed because if Upward Hartford doesn't succeed, it's going to set the entrepreneurial ecosystem behind. Same thing with us, if reSET weren't to succeed, it would set the entrepreneurial ecosystem behind for Upward Hartford."

Upward Hartford's New York-based founder and CEO, Shana Schlossberg, said the two definitely are not competitors.

"We're very good friends with Ojala," Schlossberg said, noting that a company in Upward Hartford's coworking space from Israel was in reSET's accelerator program earlier this year. She also introduced a reSET company needing insurance contacts to those people at Upward Hartford.

"So there is a lot of collaboration and I believe there will be more," she said.

The two also are working to address what Schlossberg called Hartford "pain points," the need to strengthen and grow the angel investor network to keep promising startups from seeking money in markets like Boston or New York and relocating there instead.

"If the small companies do not get proper funding, then most of them will die or they will leave," she said, noting she and Naeem have discussed the need to "pitch portfolios" to investors and broadcast that there's not one good company in Hartford to invest in, but many between respective accelerators. Also, investors' money can stretch further here than in Boston or New York, she said.

Dual missions

The nonprofit reSET, whose roots were planted in 2007 by Kate Emery of The Walker Group when she transitioned her Farmington company into a social enterprise, emerged later as a social enterprise incubator to help impact-driven businesses, launching business-development programs in its first space on Pratt Street downtown in 2013. It has since moved to the Parkville neighborhood and widened its net to include all startups, many of which also have a public benefit component.

"When we got started, our goal was to really create more social-enterprise activity," Naeem said. "That being said, we also recognize that Connecticut as a whole is really behind the curve when it comes to entrepreneurship."

While social enterprise remains in reSET's DNA, "We said, 'OK, in order to build a strong and effective social enterprise ecosystem, we need to have a strong and effective entrepreneurial ecosystem to begin with,' " Naeem said. Whether one's a social entrepreneur or not, "Your needs from a business perspective are all the same," she said, adding there's no impact without profit.

Coworking is a small share of reSET's business model, focusing more on programs and services for entrepreneurs — including its business mentoring, internships connecting students with startups, and accelerators — from its 5,900-square-foot, two-floor space in the emerging and eclectic Parkville district.

The for-profit Upward Hartford, occupying 27,453 square feet in the Stilts Building at Church and Main streets, touts significant coworking and networking space, events and, as of early this year, an annual InsurTech Accelerator, part of what's called Hartford InsurTech Hub, run by London-based Startupbootcamp to bring innovation to the city's insurance industry and spawn new InsurTech companies and jobs locally.

InsurTech is a key focus of Upward Hartford. The InsurTech Accelerator is funded by grants from CTNext, a quasi-public entity that oversees the state's new Innovation Places program and which picked InsurTech as a sector to grow. The accelerator also receives matching grants from insurers and others.

Separately, an organic community, InsurTech Hartford, has arisen at Upward Hartford featuring a community of insurance executives and others interested in advancing the sector.

Schlossberg said Upward Hartford, which celebrated its first anniversary May 9, is much more than a collaborative workspace.

"Our mission is to create; we're an innovation hub," she said, aiming to help Hartford create a critical mass of innovations similar to those in innovation capitals like Silicon Valley.

"We will do everything that will get us to that goal," she said. "We'll do every partnership, every hackathon, we'll support any startup and every startup that wants to set up, that wants connections."

Upward Harford and reSET are far from the only startup/incubator/accelerator games in the region or state. Others include:

• UConn's Technology Incubation Program in Farmington focused on bioscience startups;

• UConn's Connecticut Center of Entrepreneurship and Innovation;

• The Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology Inc. in East Hartford;

• The Accelerator for Biosciences in Connecticut, a statewide effort.

Jessica Dodge, program manager of CTNext, estimated there are dozens of coworking, accelerator and incubator spaces statewide, including a broad spectrum of university affiliates and private businesses with incubators and accelerators.

"All of those things as a collective whole are really good indicators that something is working," Dodge said. "There is the need to continue to spark new ideas to support the growing ecosystem of entrepreneurs."

With the various industry-specific efforts underway to advance bioscience, medical devices and insurance technology, among others, Naeem sees a nice space for reSET.

"I think reSET's still the only organization that's catering to a broad industry range of early stage startups," she said.

For Schlossberg, the more organizations nursing innovation, the better. It makes each stronger and creates a powerful team overall.

Naeem said more entrepreneurs are emerging in the area, in part due to the services and programs geared to them.

"Because there is an increase in talent and caliber of these companies, you're seeing the need for entities like Upward Hartford and reSET (to) exist, which means there's plenty to go around," she said.

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