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September 23, 2019 SMALL BUSINESS

State venture capital and mentors drive entrepreneurship and private investment

[Photos | courtesy of YouCOMM] The YouCOMM team was recognized by CT NEXT, an arm of the state’s venture capital body, CT Innovations.
YouCOMM developed a tablet-based nurse calling system that can be controlled by touch, voice or head gestures.
YouCOMM principals give a presentation of their product at Real Art Ways.
This story was published in Hartford Business Journal's "Doing Business in Connecticut 2019" publication, which showcases the state's many economic development opportunities, and the attributes that make Connecticut a special place to work, live and play. Click here to learn more
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As a millennial in his early 20s, Thomas Cotton may not be the most likely candidate to be thinking about senior citizen healthcare or building a business around it, but when Cotton’s grandmother fell in a rehab center a couple of years ago and was unable to access her room’s push button communication system, the recent UConn graduate not only saw an opportunity to help vulnerable seniors; he saw a market opportunity as well.

So during his senior year, in partnership with classmate Dan Yasoshima, whose relative had experienced a similar situation, Cotton co-founded a healthcare IT start-up, Farmington-based YouCOMM, LLC, to enhance the way patients and caregivers communicate. The system uses a personalized tablet-based nurse calling system that can be controlled via touch, voice recognition or head gestures, a capability that supports the needs of motor-impaired patients.

“The call bell system that most [medical] facilities use is not much more effective than a TV remote,” Cotton said. “Often, these poor communication methodologies are a reason for low patient satisfaction scores in their facilities.” Those scores, Cotton noted, are linked to Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, which can impact a facility’s bottom line. By comparison, in a small prototype trial of YouCOMM’s technology, 29 of 30 patients (97%) preferred YouCOMM’s tablet-based solution, Cotton said.

Cotton and Yashshima, who both graduated with a Master of Science degree in Biomedical Engineering, are not alone in building or supporting innovative business start-ups here. From college campuses to new Innovation Places across the state, Connecticut is building hubs of technology and entrepreneurship, fueled in part by CTNext, an arm of the state’s venture capital body, Connecticut Innovations. CTNext is not only recognizing start-ups and leveraging seed money to help promising start-ups through its Entrepreneur Innovation Awards (EIA), but earlier this year also launched a formal mentoring program to address the challenges and support the needs of technology companies in particular.

Both opportunities are critical to building an entrepreneurial ecosystem, says Michelle Cote, director of the Hartford/East Hartford Innovation Place, which spearheads several ventures to drive innovation for the region’s key sectors and anchor companies. “Early stage funding is significant [for start-ups] because a couple of thousand dollars can be critical to developing a prototype or some other type of proof of concept,” said Cote.

But understanding how to best use the resources of a fledgling business is equally important, Cote argues. “An essential element for any great environment for any entrepreneur is the ability to interact with those who’ve done this before,” she said. “Help [through mentors] to develop an individualized plan, to provide referrals and connections to other resources, is really very valuable for a start-up.”

That was CTNext’s goal when it launched a formal mentoring pilot program for tech start-ups this past January, said Glendowlyn Thames, CTNext’s former executive director, now DECD deputy commissioner. The program is run in partnership with The Refinery, a Hartford-based organization that builds programs to improve the diversity, sustainability and success of start-ups. Over the past four years, its mentors have helped 39 companies access $26 million in funds, a success they hope to replicate through the new collaboration with a network of CTNext-backed businesses.

“A lot of first-time entrepreneurs don’t know what they don’t know, so connecting them with former [start-up] founders who’ve had success, or executives from big corporations with a certain level of expertise, can be a great learning experience,” said Thames. “Entrepreneurship is all about collaboration and networking.”

The application-based mentoring program, Thames said, is specifically targeting promising start-ups that meet key criteria: a product or digital service that’s launched or in test mode, a significant value proposition, a large market opportunity, and a strong management team.

Currently, the program includes 29 volunteer members with a variety of professional backgrounds including sales, marketing, financial structures, and business modeling and planning. “They’re people who are looking to pay it forward,” said Thames, who noted that each mentor has committed to give at least one hour a week for the initial pilot program. Some mentors have even joined the advisory boards of their advisee companies – a talent recycling of sorts – which Thames said is an essential part of building and sustaining a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem.

It’s a welcome trend for young entrepreneurs like Thomas Cotton, whose start-up received $10,000 through a CT Entrepreneurship Innovation Award in January. He and his business partner have also applied to be part of the CTNext mentoring program and understand its value. “Being new entrepreneurs, we’re looking for mentors who can see the potential obstacles in our business plan that we might not be aware of so we can address those problems up front, rather than reactively,” Cotton said. “In addition, it’s just helpful to have someone to bounce ideas off and get advice from as we proceed.”

Cotton said YouCOMM, LLC, is using its CTNext award money, in part, to conduct a larger scale clinical trial of the company’s technology in collaboration with UConn Health Center. A portion is also invested to cover manufacturing costs of the tablet cases for their product. Both Cotton and Yasoshima remain optimistic in their product’s – and their company’s – long-term viability. Their ultimate success, they hope, will not only be good for the health of senior citizens, but for the entrepreneurial ecosystem they are now a part of.

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