Mr. Innovation Meets The Fellows

Thomas MacMillan PhotoThe economic engine of New Haven’s future may lie in building “lab on a chip” devices, or teaching computers to see—if a state investment in three “Grid Founders Fellows” pays off.

In hopes of firing up that engine, the state has helped to create three new fellowships at New Haven’s “innovation hub,” known as “The Grid.”

For six months, the three fellows will receive stipends, advice, and space to work, with the hope that they can turn their ideas into profitable companies—and job-creators. 

The three young entrepreneurs—Kara Brower, David Luan, and Sanchit Arora—met this week with Michael Cantor, the head of Connecticut Innovations, the state’s venture capital fund, which is paying for the fellowships.

The fellowships are part of a state effort to “reboot” the Connectictut economy with an infusion of high-tech industry. Through Connecticut Innovations, the state seeks to grow a new ecosystem of tech jobs, to replace those lost to the decline of manufacturing. As part of that effort, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy chose the Grove, New Haven’s co-working space, to be the site of a new “innovation hub” called The Grid, one of four in the state that will share a total of $5 million. The idea is that the hubs, and the young entrepreneurs and start-ups they spawn, will create the jobs central to the future economy.

Cantor (pictured) visited town Tuesday afternoon to get a taste of New Haven’s burgeoning tech and start-up scene. He made stops at, among other places, SeeClickFix, Grey Wall, and Make Haven before ending up at the Grove, on Chapel Street.

In a third-floor-conference room there, Cantor met with Brower, Luan and Arora and learned what they’re working on.

Brower (at left in photo, with Luan), who is 22 and graduated from Yale in the spring, is a co-founder of IsoPlexis. The start-up works with “lab on a chip”  technology to create a new way for clinicians and researchers to test a patient’s immune response, a technology that could help test the efficacy of drugs. 

Luan, also a recent Yale grad, and Arora, from the University of Pennsylvania, founded Dextro. They’re working on a new way for computers to automatically identify objects in photos and videos on the web so that, for instance, Coca-Cola could automatically detect how many people are posting Instagram photos with Coke bottles in them.

Luan, who’s 22, studied applied math and political science at Yale. He has had a longstanding interest in robotics. He met Arora, a 26-year-old who grew up in Delhi, through a mutual friend. Arora (pictured), then a grad student at Penn, had been working on teaching robots to see.

Seeing and comprehending, while instantaneous and usually unremarkable for humans, is a surprisingly difficult task for machines, Arora said. During grad school, he was part of teams that competed in NASA sponsored contests to design robots that could probe other planets and respond to visual data.

Arora is now bringing some of those skills to bear on the internet, where images and videos form an increasingly large percentage of the web’s total content. With current technology, it still takes human eyes to see and recognize what’s in all those images and videos. A computer can’t tell the difference between a video of a baby panda and a video of a Nascar race.

Most people working on this problem have been focused on facial recognition, Luan said. He and Arora are focused instead on object recognition, so that, for instance, Samsung could find out if people post videos online that feature its phones.

The technology has the potential to have an enormous impact on how people and computers interact with the web, with possible applications for everything from police work to targeted advertising. For now, Luan and Arora are reluctant to speak too much about their technology, until they have a chance to develop it further. They hope to have it operational within a few months.

Cantor quizzed the fellows about the applications and commercial viability of their products, and on whether they plan to stick around New Haven if their companies take off. The flight of successful New Haven start ups has been a problem recently, with entrepreneurs leaving town for places like Cambridge, Mass.

Luan said he hopes to keep Dextro in town “as long as we can keep Hoovering up talent.” He said companies like his need only capital and talent. If Dextro can find those things in Connecticut, it will stay, he said.

In addition to capital and talent, Brower said, bio-tech companies like hers need a third resource: lab space. “Normally, companies like us would go to Boston,” which is a “health hub” for the region, she said.

That may be changing, Brower said. IsoPlexis is finding a large number of collaborators nearby, she said. And, she said, the young company doesn’t have to clamor for attention and “fight the crowds” the way it might in a place like Boston. 

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posted by: NewHavenTaxTooHigh on November 15, 2013  5:19pm

“For six months, the three fellows will receive stipends, advice, and space to work, with the hope that they can turn their ideas into profitable companies—and job-creators.”

This is a waste of CT taxpayer dollars unless the state receives some sort of equity and/or an assurance that the companies remain in CT.

posted by: Burbel on November 16, 2013  12:28pm

This is exactly the kind of thing Connecticut Innovations should be doing, a logical extension of their exemplary investment model.

If the state continues to address the talent pipeline, the availability of capital, and attracting and holding on to the young entrepreneurs who would otherwise go to Boston, New York, or Silicon Valley, the private sector will grow and create jobs.

It is also great to see an expert and industry leader like Cantor out in the field kicking the tires himself.