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April 29, 2019 Editor's Take

Is Hartford becoming a tech center?

Rendering | Contributed A rendering of the Digital Health CT space at One Constitution Plaza.
Hartford Business Journal Editor Greg Bordonaro

Another week has passed and another new innovation center has been announced in downtown Hartford.

Hartford HealthCare, Trinity College and the UConn School of Business recently unveiled plans to launch this fall a medical technology and digital health accelerator in Constitution Plaza, with hopes of attracting promising startups to the city, where experts will help them develop and implement their strategy and potentially stick around for future growth.

If you're keeping score at home, this is at least the fourth startup incubator to launch in Hartford in just the last few years. There are also business accelerators for the advanced-manufacturing and insurance industries as well as socially conscious startups.

Meantime, MakerSpace CT recently opened its doors to would-be tinkerers and entrepreneurs, while Upward Hartford is launching its Upward Labs project, which aims to develop companies in the smart-building and aged-care technology industries.

Of course, Infosys also opened its tech hub in Goodwin Square earlier this year, where it plans to hire 1,000 people for IT and other jobs.

If this all seems like new and foreign territory for Hartford, you're right. It's been generations since the city has been considered a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship.

The conservative nature of the insurance industry, which still dominates here, may have contributed to the risk-averse culture that has taken root in the city for many decades.

Ironically, the insurance industry is now helping lead the push for Hartford to break from its reputation as a city steeped in declining or traditional industries. Travelers Cos., Cigna Corp. and The Hartford have each donated time and money to support the Hartford InsurTech Hub, which has attracted 20 or so insurance-technology startups from around the world to join its accelerator program.

Some of those companies have even established a small presence here.

So, what does this all mean for the Capital City? It's unclear what the long-term implications are. There has been lots of hype around the launch of each of these new tech centers with flashy press conferences featuring movers and shakers from the public and private sector — all championing the city as a place for innovation.

The state has also invested in a number of these endeavors.

Certainly, this is a positive start in the city's effort to reinvent itself and compete for technology companies and talent. But that's all it is right now — a start.

The real challenge will be getting more startups that participate in these various incubators to actually grow jobs here. We may never land the next Apple or Amazon, but a dozen or so companies growing workforces of 20 or more employees in the city can begin to move the needle.

To do that, the city and state need to build a business climate fertile for startup growth. Significant challenges remain in that regard. For example, the city's exorbitant 74.29 mill rate serves as a major drag on economic growth, and must be made more competitive if Hartford wants to attract more private investment.

The day when government subsidies or tax breaks are no longer needed to do business in Hartford will be a milestone.

We are all familiar with the state's challenges by now, but it's not only the major issues like paid family medical leave or the minimum wage that impact businesses. There are also nuisance taxes like the capital base tax, which is a levy on a company's net worth or capital holdings, something particularly annoying to bioscience startups that have raised a bunch of cash but aren't yet making any money.

Connecticut has many of the attributes to build a vibrant, tech-savvy Capital City. In fact, Bloomberg recently ranked Connecticut as the nation's fourth most innovative economy, based on its presence of STEM workers, density of tech companies, and research and development capabilities.

Hartford and the state also offer a lower-cost alternative to nearby tech centers in Boston and New York City. But this is no time for Hartford to pat itself on the back for its recent developments.

Infrastructure is now in place for tech growth, but we need to continue to build up the city as a place that is attractive for entrepreneurs and young talent.

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