To truly develop an innovative “creative economy,” New Haven needs better public transportation, both in town and to major airports; flexible startup work spaces; and a wider net of people participating.
Those suggestions were offered at an Elm City Innovation Collaborative (ECIC) Open House on Monday night, which drew about 50 people to a session at Gateway Community College.
New Haven is one of 12 Connecticut cities which won planning grants from the CTNext’s Innovation Places Program. This allows the city to compete for $30 million in funding to be disbursed over the next five years as implementation grants and for designation as a CTNext’s Innovation Place. This title would also help with applications for other future economic development grants or even for brownfield remediation, according to Michael Harris, Mayor Toni Harp’s legislative liaison.
Monday night’s session was part of the information-gathering phase of putting together an application for the $30 million.
The names of cities like Woodstock, Davos, San Francisco, and San Jose conjure up strong feelings said Sri Muthu, who recently joined the ECIC steering committee. “They need a way to brand New Haven beyond New Haven as just a town. When I say New Haven, innovation is not the first thing that comes to your head. So, how do we change the dynamic to say, ‘Oh, wow! That is the place to be’?” asked Muthu.
“You don’t try to compete with Boston or New York. That’s a big mistake. The smarter thing is to ask what are our key strengths. What makes someone choose to live in New Haven?” Muthu continued, “Is it quality of life? Is it good schools or access to nature? We should highlight what’s valuable about New Haven.”
State Sens. Martin Looney and John Fonfara developed the CTNext’s Innovation Program with the goal of creating hubs of innovation focused on technology and biotech economies. The money will not be used to launch individual businesses with venture capital or traditional financing. Instead, fhe CTNext’s grant supports innovation ecosystems. For example, the money could go to public space improvements, office space, lab space, and talent pipelines (people training in coding). The grant will advance ways of making the city more attractive to tech workers and investments. The $30 million will be generated through the sale of state bonds.
Formed in response to the CTNext’s program, the ECIC is a multi-party consortium with government employees and people working in the private sector. Slate Ballard, founder of the co-working space The Grove, chairs ECIC with 10 co-chairs, two from each of the five committees: bioscience, digital divide, digital tech, educational institutions, incubator spaces.
J.R. Logan, chief maker at Make Haven, co-chairs the incubator spaces committee. He and Virginia Kozlowski, CEO of EDC New Haven, agreed that the evening was not just about getting a grant but about working together and creating a greater sense of community.
The Open House sought people’s perspectives on challenges, opportunities and trends. Forty-five institutions, businesses and collaboratives were represented in the planning group. The organizers posted boards with questions about the critical factors in creating an innovative, entrepreneurial city. Participants provided their input, often by adhering red dots to select answers to questions.
Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent started Escape New Haven, where small teams of people are “locked” in rooms and solve puzzles to escape within an hour. He came to the ECIC event due to his interest in meeting designers and engineers and learning about entrepreneurial endeavors.
“The city government needs to be more responsive and supportive of new businesses and people who are trying to start out in the area. It’s very difficult to navigate new businesses, to navigate the regulatory environment here,” he said.
Muthu graduated from Yale School of Management in 2016. He started a digital incubator, Heath Venture, which launches healthcare startups in 120 days. His company provides funding, development resources, product management resources, marketing and sales. He is working with the medical director of the Yale Child Study Center Outpatient Clinic, David Grodberg, whose business MindNest Health connects parents to behavioral healthcare for children. “It is the first New Haven-based company to be selected by Google Startup Grind. We’re one of the finalists, so we’re flying out to San Francisco, next week,” said Muthu.
With his experience, Muthu noted New Haven has a lack of flexible space for tech companies to grow, and scarce short-term rental space. He said startups need very little space to begin with but tend to grow very fast or shut down. So no startup wants to sign a three-year lease, but most real estate people would not offer anything less than a year. It is hard for startups to commit to that kind of up front cost. He also noted that academic communities are a core asset in New Haven but wondered how they can get more involved outside of academia. He noted that as a Yale student he had access to facilities that were not available to people outside of the university. Muthu suggested making the Yale Enterprise Institute available to people outside of Yale. He noted time-consuming transportation to other cities’ airports are a valid concern which could be easily resolved with buses.
“I think there are issues the city needs to confront related to space. There are clearly some issues around space, connectedness, transportation and feeling like a community. … Some of these issues need to be addressed,” said Kevin Hively, a consultant with Ninigret Partners. His team will gather the input from the committee and the public feedback to prepare the city’s application for a technical review on March 1, and the final submission on April 1.
The city expects to learn the results of its grant application in June.