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February 8, 2016

International Recruitment: CT Innovations looks beyond U.S. for investments

PHOTO | Contributed In his first full year as CI CEO, Matt McCooe plans to expand the VC investor's focus.
PHOTO | Andrey_Popov;

Connecticut's quasi-public venture capital arm is planning to throw its support behind the state's efforts to attract foreign companies.

Connecticut Innovations (CI), which hired a new CEO last year, is planning an international venture capital contest, open to U.S. companies, that would culminate late this year with several million dollars in debt and equity investments in winning firms that agree to move to the Nutmeg State. CI is calling the contest the “global venture challenge” for now, but will unveil an official name once it rolls out its marketing push in the U.S. and abroad.

Though CI has used investments to lure seven companies to Connecticut from other states — mainly Massachusetts and New York — it's the first time in its 27-year history that it has expanded its aspirations beyond U.S. borders, CEO Matthew McCooe confirmed in an interview.

“CI has not had an international focus until now,” McCooe said. “This is a point in time where we can do some big things.”

CI's new contest is part of broader efforts by the state, MetroHartford Alliance, and other business groups to attract foreign companies as competition intensifies among states to woo businesses in and outside the U.S. Boston's decision to provide up to $145 million in loans, grants and tax abatements for Fairfield-based General Electric to move its headquarters to the Bay State reflects just how far cities and states are willing to go to compete for jobs.

Breaking down the contest

CI's dual mission is to make a return on its investments and to create jobs in Connecticut.

The contest aims to boost CI's deal flow and raise Connecticut's profile among foreign companies, particularly those in the financial and healthcare technology spaces, which are “sweet-spot” sectors featured prominently in CI's portfolio, McCooe said.

Besides being deemed worthy of investment by CI, foreign and domestic contestants (the challenge will be open to both) would be required to establish or move their U.S. headquarters to Connecticut in order to collect any prize capital, McCooe said.

“We really want to get the CTO, the brilliant young engineer from Moscow or Tel Aviv or Munich who is willing to uproot his family and take a risk and come to the U.S.,” he said.

More than just capital

Convincing a foreign entrepreneur to make that leap will require not just capital, but also showing him or her that there's a large enough customer base and workforce in the area to make it worth it, he added.

CI has allocated $300,000 from its current year budget to organize and promote the challenge, and has hired a consultant to start doing legwork in Munich, London and beyond. It plans to award several million dollars in equity and debt investments to winners.

McCooe said he wants both the winning companies and the state to benefit, which means making sure the winner is an investment-worthy company.

Venture contests can draw interest from companies that may have exhausted their funding possibilities elsewhere, so McCooe said he is wary of adverse selection.

“We don't want to be a funder of last resort,” he said. “The point is really making sure we're attracting the best companies.”

Leveraging state expertise

CI is leveraging the expertise of the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), which built up numerous contacts in its foreign-trade trips over the years.

A spokesman for DECD said the agency is “actively supporting” CI's new program, but that it was too early to discuss specifics.

CI has also tapped into expertise at the MetroHartford Alliance, which has worked with the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford to build relationships with Israeli companies over the past five years.

Innovation showcase

Those two organizations will host their annual “innovation showcase” in May, which last year was held at UConn Health in Farmington and featured presentations from four Israeli companies in the medical technology field.

Rebecca Nolan, vice president of business development at MetroHartford Alliance, said having CI join the foreign recruitment efforts already underway in the state should be a positive. She said promising startups often don't have the funds to tap into loans or investments that would allow them to relocate — which is what the CI contest will require.

“It adds another layer of opportunity,” Nolan said. “This is another tool we can use to have companies take a look at Connecticut.”

Trans-Atlantic flight

Connecticut's economic development brass will have another tool in their international recruitment war chest when Aer Lingus begins its trans-Atlantic flight from Bradley Airport to Dublin, Ireland in September. The flight, Nolan said, will make it easier for foreign companies to travel to and from Connecticut since Dublin is a hub for departures and arrivals to many other countries.

The Aer Lingus flights will offer passengers an option to clear customs in Ireland instead of when they land in Windsor Locks. Bradley hasn't had an trans-Atlantic flight since Delta pulled its nonstop Amsterdam service nearly seven years ago.

“We want to make this flight successful,” Nolan said. So does state government, which has promised Aer Lingus as much as $9 million in revenue guarantees for its first two years of service.

Besides its impending global focus, Rocky Hill-based CI is also simultaneously trying to ensure that it's serving all of Connecticut, said McCooe, who last month set up an office in Fairfield County to better connect with companies in the state's wealthiest region — where many of CI's past deals have originated.

“I want CI to be more statewide,” he said.

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