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September 18, 2023

CT’s first chief innovation officer aims to jump-start economic growth

HBJ PHOTO | BILL MORGAN Acting Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Daniel O’Keefe.

Gov. Ned Lamont has quietly created a new high-profile position in state government: the state’s first chief innovation officer, who will serve as an advocate for the innovation economy, focusing on economic growth, workforce development and job creation in a burgeoning sector.

Alexandra Daum

Chief Innovation Officer Dan O’Keefe started his new full-time position working for the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) on July 5.

The new role will be similar to that of Chief Manufacturing Officer Paul Lavoie, except O’Keefe’s focus will be on innovation. Both men report to DECD Commissioner Alexandra Daum.

O’Keefe previously served as managing partner of Apax Digital, a New York City-based technology investment firm. There, he helped technology companies grow by providing capital and expertise, while developing and fostering ecosystems to support innovation.

O’Keefe said he decided that after 25 years in the private sector, he wanted to pivot to the public realm, where he believes he can have a greater impact and improve equality of access.

Through a connection, O’Keefe said he procured a lunch meeting with Lamont and pitched the idea of the position to the governor. O’Keefe was considering a job with the federal government at the time, but Lamont convinced him to stay local.

“He said, ‘Listen, if you really care about impact … don’t go federal, go state …. Things happen at the state and local level, so just meet my team, and if it seems like there might be a fit, we’d love to have a conversation about what that fit might be,’” O’Keefe said, recounting his conversation with Lamont.

“That’s how it started.”

O’Keefe met Daum and other state leaders, and a position was built for him at DECD.

O’Keefe said he plans to leverage his skills helping technology companies to improve Connecticut’s innovation economy, which describes new ideas and technologies that spur business and job growth.

“The innovation economy is, in my mind, something that can change people’s lives,” O’Keefe said. “And it can increase our economy in incredibly compelling ways. We have to invest in it though. You have to foster these economies, these ecosystems of growth.”

He wants to help position the sector for future growth by building “muscle” and long-term viability. That means attracting more capital to the state, in addition to entrepreneurs willing to take risks.

“The key is to continue to make Connecticut a place where innovation can thrive, and capital will follow,” O’Keefe said.

And there’s more to the innovation economy than just medical research, pharmaceutical and tech companies. O’Keefe said he sees his role as supporting any businesses that leverage “innovation as a source of competitive differentiation.”

“It really is quite broad,” O’Keefe said. “It could be everything from a software company, to a coffee roaster who sought a new and innovative way to produce coffee.”

O’Keefe does not have an employment contract with the state, but said he plans to stay in the position for as long as he’s needed. Although he reports to Daum, he also will work on “special projects” for Lamont.

O’Keefe will take healthcare benefits but no salary.

Private sector

O’Keefe began working for Apax in 1999, then became general partner at TCV, a large investment firm based in Menlo Park, California, where he focused on investments in the internet and software sectors.

He rejoined Apax in 2016, but recently retired from the private sector — though, at 48, he’s loath to use the “R-word.”

His trajectory is similar to Daum’s and her predecessor, David Lehman, who both worked in the private sector before landing government jobs.

Daum, a Harvard Business School grad who worked for commercial real estate and investment giant Trammell Crow Residential before founding a small New Haven real estate investment firm, became DECD’s deputy commissioner in 2020.

She was appointed commissioner in 2022. Her predecessor, Lehman, was a partner at investment giant Goldman Sachs before Lamont tapped him to lead DECD in 2019.

Daum said having a chief innovation officer will allow DECD to better serve Connecticut’s growing innovation economy, including its cluster of life science and biotechnology companies in New Haven, and fintech and insurtech businesses in different parts of the state.

“We wanted to have that expertise in-house so that we can be helping those companies to grow in Connecticut, or come to Connecticut in the first place, and make sure that there’s someone here that really speaks their language and can really explain the value proposition of Connecticut, or get their feedback on what we need to do differently to make it an even better place to grow your company,” Daum said in an interview with the HBJ.

Since taking office in 2019, Lamont, a former small business owner, has created several C-suite-type roles within state government, including the chief operating officer position, which is currently vacant, and chief marketing officer, held by Anthony Anthony, a former Lamont aide.

Anthony also works for DECD.

But O’Keefe said he doesn’t see the new positions as moves toward corporatizing state government.

“Yes, we call it chief innovation officer, which sounds corporate, but the actual mandate is public service, right?” he said. “This is all about helping people, helping communities thrive, helping to invest in those communities and really just make Connecticut an even better place to live.”

Adopted state

O’Keefe, who lives in New Canaan with his wife, Sarah, two daughters, 11 and 14, and two dogs, came from humble beginnings.

He grew up in a small house outside Boston, and his mother was a public school teacher. He took an interest in technology at a young age and was intellectually curious. He said he taught himself how to code and started an e-commerce website in 1994, the same year Yahoo! was founded.

Then he learned how to invest.

Outside of work, O’Keefe serves as a board member and chairperson emeritus of The Opportunity Network, an education and career-skills nonprofit that reaches more than 40,000 high-potential students from historically marginalized communities.

He’s also served in positions at his alma maters, including president of the alumni board at Harvard Business School, where he received his MBA, and on the President’s Leadership Council at Brown University, where he received his bachelor’s degree.

He calls Connecticut his adopted state, but says he’s fully invested in it. He said he chose the Nutmeg State for its quality of life and business opportunities.

“We have all of the assets and work already underway to create and foster this concept of innovative ecosystems,” O’Keefe said. “And now there’s an opportunity to come in and hopefully play a role that helps further coordinate, further catalyze, for it to grow.”

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