A new small business that sells portable martial arts “wooden dummies.” A new nonprofit that brings people together in Newhallville. A fireman-cum-software engineer using tech to support emergency responders. And a citywide push to teach residents how to code.
Those are a few local entrepreneurial initiatives to emerge this week as the city took next steps toward a future as an innovation economy.
That was all on display Wednesday night, as 150 people packed The State House performance venue at 310 State St. for the third “Collab pitch day.” Seven local and regional teams presented their small business ideas to friends, supporters, community leaders, and potential investors as the final session in Collab’s 10-week entrepreneurship incubator and accelerator program, which award grant money to local start-ups.
Collab itself is one of the 14 different local ventures to be funded by an annual $2 million Innovation Places grant that the city received from the state in 2016 and that is administered locally by the Elm City Innovation Collaborative.
Wednesday also saw the announcement of a new citywide initiative to double down on training residents in computer science and coding as part of a nationally recognized pitch to develop local professional-level software talent. (More on that below.)
The Collab entrepreneurs pitching at The State House and the city’s plans to boost local coding education both pointed to a recent influx in dollars, awards, and attention paid to a growing sector of New Haven’s economy predicated on innovation, entrepreneurship, and small teams with big ideas.
Collab co-founders and co-directors Caroline Smith and Margaret Lee introduced the third cohort of Collab-mentored entrepreneurs at the State House as participants in a program that prioritizes investing in local talent, and empowering individuals to make community-level change.
“We believe the best, most successful businesses are the ones that are deeply embedded in their communities,” Smith said.
One of the Collab participants to present on Wednesday night was Newhallville Community Management Team Chair Kim Harris, who is the founder of a new nonprofit called Inspired Communities, Inc. (Click on the Facebook Live video above to watch Harris’s Wednesday night presentation.)
Harris pitched Inspired Communities as both a neighborhood-specific version of the One City Initiative that she spearheaded last summer, which brought together all of the city’s community management teams to host hundreds of free, family-friendly events throughout the city across 60 days.
For her new venture, Harris is drilling down on the neighborhood she grew up in, the neighborhood she works in, and the neighborhood she calls home: Newhallville.
“Inspired Communities is a nonprofit community platform that empowers the residents of Newhallville to advocate for themselves and their community,” Harris said on Wednesday night. What that means is that, starting in January, Harris will organize community tours, conversations, and other events events focused on developing civic engagement and leadership in Newhallville.
On Jan. 2, she’ll host a “dream session” at ConnCAT in Science Park to talk with Newhallville neighbors about goals for the neighborhood. Later that month, she said, she’ll take a group of Newhallville residents on a tour of the Fair Haven tech hub the DISTRICT to show what kinds of entrepreneurial activities and tech job training are just a few blocks away from her neighborhood.
“We feel Inspired Communities, Inc, is one of the main ways for you to invest in our community,” Harris said to the near capacity crowd.
West Haven resident Damon Davis also pitched New Haveners on his business idea on Wednesday night. His idea had less to do with community empowerment and more to do with martial arts training on the go.
Davis, 45, is the founder of Jong Arms, a new company that makes and sells portable, affordable mu rehn zhang, or “wooden dummies” used for balance and flow-of-power training in a popular style of Chinese martial arts.
Davis said he has practiced martial arts for 30 years, has taught martial arts for a decade, and has worked as a bodyguard for celebrities like actor Dave Chapelle. While traveling the country and the world to protect his charges, he said, he found he had little time to find martial arts training gyms, and little capacity to lug around a conventional “wooden dummy,” which usually weighs 200 pounds and stands at six feet tall.
Enter Jong Arms. Davis has designed a light-weight, portable version of the training tool that is only eight pounds heavy and is height-adjustable. His product is made of wood and steel, though he’s looking for funding to help him branch out into manufacturing with aluminum. Each of his “wooden dummies” cost just under $25 to make and retail at $150.
“The sale of mixed martial-art equipment is a multi-million dollar market,” he said, citing the 18 million Americans who participated in some form of martial arts at least once in the previous year. He called on the community present to help him raise money for marketing, manufacturing, distribution, and updates to his product design.
The other five Collab entrepreneurs who presented on Wednesday night were:
• Kaseem Johnson, a 32-year-old Bridgeport charter school teacher, Hillhouse High School basketball coach, and Hill native who is the founder of Kamili’s Kids Youth Development program. His nonprofit plans to promote social-emotional learning, physical activity, and job skills activities for students of color ages 10 to 14.
• Kevin Coyner, a Greenwich firefighter and software engineer who is the founder of Firetek, a software application that communicates critical emergency response information from a 9-1-1 call center database directly to firefighters’ cellphones.
• Caterina Passoni and Ben Weiss, two Yale students whose Havenly company works with refugee chefs to develop high quality snacks.
• Lori Martin and Caleb Martin-Mooney, whose company Haven’s Harvest focuses on reducing food waste through the timely and reliable pick-up and delivery of surplus food, through food advocacy, and through product development.
• Marisol Credle, a Newhallville resident and the founder of Top Secret Songwriter, which designs and sells a one-stop-shop guide, marketing kit, and launch strategy for aspiring songwriters looking to build their brands without prior industry connections.
The City That Codes
Earlier on Wednesday afternoon, ECIC Chair Michael Harris announced a new citywide initiative to turn New Haven into “The City that Codes.”
Harris, a Harp administration City Hall staffer, wrote that the National League of Cities recently selected New Haven as one of 50 cities through the country to support as part of its new City Innovation Ecosystem Program.
That means that New Haven will be able to tap into the NLC’s network of foundations, support, and technical assistance to realize a proposal to “double the annual number of new professional-level software talent trained in New Haven by 2022.”
Click here to read the full “City That Codes” press release.
Harris wrote that the city will try to reach this goal through three concerted strategies: inclusive recruitment at schools, libraries, city buildings, and other community spaces currently detached from the tech sector; skill and network development through informal clubs, event series, and university partnerships; and professional-level training at the new satellite location of the Holberton School at the DISTRICT in Fair Haven.
Click on the Facebook Live video below to listen to an interview with ECIC’s Michael Harris on WNHH’s “Mayor Monday,” appearing in the show’s second segment