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August 10, 2015 Focus: Startups & Entrepreneurs

CT’s nascent entrepreneurial network slowly evolves

PHOTO | Contributed Glendowlyn Thames, director of Small Business Innovation and CTNext at Connecticut Innovations.
PHOTO | Contributed Voda CEO Matt Cremins stands next to the SmartWell custom-beverage dispenser.

With three years under its belt, CTNext, the state-backed entrepreneurial network created to encourage more startup activity in Connecticut, has grown to nearly 750 members and doled out $5.1 million to widen small business access to talent, workspace, industry expertise, services, skill development and capital.

A startup itself, CTNext continues to evolve but has made progress since its 2012 founding in generating a more cohesive network to help shepherd startups through various stages of development, said Glendowlyn Thames, director of Small Business Innovation and CTNext at Connecticut Innovations, the state's quasi-public venture capital and lending arm.

“We've been able to grow our network as far as the innovation ecosystem — and what that really means is the number of companies that are in our membership,” Thames said of the organization's 749 members, more than 80 percent of which are startups, with the rest including service providers and mentors. “We've seen that growth over time, so we're really pleased with where we are.”

The state earmarked $25 million in funds for CTNext over five years. The network so far includes CTNext partners who receive funding to help startups, non-financially sponsored partners, service providers, entrepreneurs and six entrepreneurs-in-residence scattered throughout the state who are experienced in starting, running, owning and growing a business and who also receive funding for their assistance.

CTNext also provides Entrepreneur Innovation Awards to promising companies, which are $10,000 grants startups can use to propel their business.

But direct funding is only one part of CTNext's mission, Thames said.

“Entrepreneurs and small businesses need customers, they need connections, they need that whole networking aspect, they need mentors, they need advisers, they need rental space, so CTNext provides all those links and kind of the glue to that community,” Thames said.

Early impact

Many of the CTNext partners that help early stage companies are startups or small businesses as well, meaning each is helping the other grow, creating a mutually beneficial relationship.

Thames counts Voda among CTNext's success stories. The company, founded at the University of Connecticut, makes the SmartWell custom-beverage dispenser, which offers hot, cold or carbonated water to which people can add zero-calorie flavors, a natural plant sweetener and electrolytes and vitamins. It cites an environmental element, too: no plastic bottles.

Matt Cremins, Voda CEO, said CTNext helped his company, which won a $10,000 Entrepreneur Innovation Award in 2014 and another $2,000 as audience favorite in the award competition. Voda used the money to design and build a functional prototype of its SmartWell product that it could test with customers.

“This was a huge turning point for us,” Cremins said. “With real customer feedback on what they liked and did not like, we could intelligently improve the SmartWell to find a product-market fit.”

Customer feedback also convinced private investors to invest in Voda, he said, adding that CTNext helped transform Voda from an idea to an investable company with a working product.

Determining value

Bruce Carlson, president and CEO of the Connecticut Technology Council, a new CTNext partner aiming to receive $90,000 this fiscal year for a program to help match college graduates strong in coding with growing companies needing that help, said he thinks CTNext is on the right path.

Startups and entrepreneurism succeed when there's a robust network of people and services supporting them, where someone can “parachute in,” make critical connections and be enveloped by the network, he said.

“I would say we're well on our way to that being the case in Connecticut, and that's a good thing,” Carlson said.

More state funding for CTNext after five years would be great to allow it to continue to try new ideas and further develop the network, but developing an innovation ecosystem can't just be a public effort; there needs to be private investment, too, he said. For example, if Connecticut Technology Council's workforce program succeeds in helping companies identify and fulfill talent needs, he hopes companies help sustain it, thereby allowing his group's state funds to be reprogrammed for trial on another good idea.

Mark Lassoff, founder and president of Vernon-based LearnToProgram Inc., a publisher of web, mobile and game development courses used worldwide and an early innovation grant winner, said CTNext's approach of letting private companies develop the ecosystem is good.

“It's been a reasonable effort,” Lassoff said. “I'm a believer that government, even though a critical partner, is not the factor that can catalyze growth of entrepreneurship; it's one of many partners in developing an ecosystem. I think as much as CTNext has sponsored some good programs … I'd like still to see more people from the existing Connecticut business community stepping up and participating and becoming leaders in the entrepreneurial community and sharing their wealth of experience that's here.”

Thames admits CTNext still has a lot more work to do building an innovation ecosystem, but she believes it is on the right path.

“If you look at … where we were three years ago, there wasn't this connectivity, there wasn't this glue bringing everybody together and there weren't all these resources that existed,” Thames said. “And now we have that and we have something and now it's a matter of, 'OK, how do we coalesce that and continue to move it to the next level and move the needle.'"

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