New Innovation Director Plots Tech-Jobs Strategy

Thomas Breen photoInvest in job training. Invest in physical spaces. Invest in accessibility.

Newly minted Elm City Innovation Collaborative (ECIC) Director Michael Harris made that pitch early Tuesday morning before the regular monthly meeting of the Development Commission on the second floor of City Hall.

Harris, who left his job in the mayor’s office last month to take over the state-funded, locally-managed ECIC, updated commissioners on the latest projects funded by the start-up promoter with $2 million each year for three years from a 2016 CTNext Innovation Places grant to the city.

Harris also explained his organization’s vision for how to further promote the development of software and bioscience jobs in New Haven, particularly for residents who have historically been excluded from those sectors.

“Currently we have an enormous amount of fuel for innovation,” Harris said. “We have a fire that’s burning pretty hot. New Haven is fairly good at starting businesses. But we’re losing a lot of that excess energy out.”

Just like a rocket stove that concentrates fire in on itself, increasing heat and burning oxygen more efficiently, New Haven needs to retain entrepreneurs and support the development of new ones in order to continue seeing job growth and economic development in science and technology, Harris argued.

How to stoke those flames? By following three key objectives, Harris said: creating new spaces for start-ups to grow and connect, developing local talent for bioscience and software jobs, and making tech hubs welcoming places for all members of the community.

These are some of the highest-paying jobs with some of the lowest barriers to entry, Harris said. He added the products that new bioscience and software businesses produce are sold throughout the world, and therefore bring new dollars into the New Haven economy.

“This is a way to grow not just those people who can work in the sector,” he said, “but New Haven’s economy more broadly.”

Click here to download Harris’s full presentation.

Building Spaces

New Haven was one of four cities to have won the state’s CTPlaces Innovation Places grants, along with Stamford, Hartford, and Groton.

A year and a half into ECIC’s administration of New Haven’s $2 million annual state aid, Harris reported, the local job incubator has supported 32 participating organizations, has opened 30,000 square feet of new office and lab space. It’s also hosted 214 events, and catalyzed $10 million in private investment.

In terms of physical space, ECIC has funded the creation of Health Haven Hub, a digital health incubator on Elm Street that provides office space, expertise, and industry connections for businesses looking to develop software solutions around health.

ECIC funded the the creation of new testing facilities at Science Park to accommodate the expansion of Arvinas and other medical device start-ups.

At Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU), ECIC helped thechemistry lab purchase six new pieces of advanced instrumentation, including a mass spectrometer, which 48 students have already been trained on. The incubator has also funded 18 SCSU students who did summer research at school labs or at local bioscience businesses.

Going forward, Harris said, ECIC is looking at building a shared lab space somewhere in the city and at securing state and private investment for a new “world-class lab facility” similar to what Rhode Island, New York, and Massachusetts have used public and private dollars to fund in their own states.

“We’re thinking strategically as a state as to how to compete in the bioscience sphere in New Haven,” he said.

Training Talent

Christopher Peak photoAs for training new talent, Harris said, ECIC has focused its attention on software skills.

“The pathway to participate in the innovation economy in biology takes a while,” he said, both in terms of education and job experience. But in computer science, he said, the jobs are plentiful, well-paying, and relatively easy to access.

Connecticut currently has 7,400 open computer science jobs. That number is expected to grow by 30 percent over the next decade, according to Harris. Salaries for these jobs start at $72,000, twice the city’s median household income.

Harris said that ECIC has worked with the local company Concepts for Adaptive Learning to give free computers to 260 local families, and to provide those families with training in the full suite of Microsoft applications.

At SCSU, he said, ECIC has funded two cohorts of middle school and high school students who have participate in a mobile computer science programming program, where they’ve learned to program applications on Android phones.

At Gateway Community College, ECIC has helped set up 18 scholarships for a new program that offers a certificate for a business analyst position, training students in data analysis and visualization.

And at the DISTRICT tech hub in Fair Haven, ECIC and the DISTRICT’s David Salinas are supporting the San Francisco-based Holberton School to set up their second intensive computer programming initiative in the Elm City. Holberton offers a two-year intensive coding education program, he said, where students attend for 40 to 60 hours a week, and are admitted based on critical thinking skills rather than past experience or education. The program has no up front costs, instead working on a profit-share model whereby students must pay Holberton 15 percent of their earnings over three years if they land a job after graduation that pays over $40,000 annually.

“It’s in their interest to get people into better jobs,” he said.

Are the students paid while they attend Holberton? Development Commissioner Kevin Ewing asked.

No, Harris replied. But ECIC is looking into fundraising to get some living stipends for in-need students. After the meeting, Harris told the Independent that Scroll recently donated $10,000 to support a living stipend for students at Holberton.

“This is the best and lowest-barrier option we were able to do,” he said about Holberton.

Holberton will be hosting an open house at the DISTRICT on Wednesday at 6 p.m. Click here to lear. more.


Markeshia Ricks photoAs for making tech hubs accessible to everyone in the community, Harris cited the ECIC’s funding of the new IvesSquared cafe and maker space at the downtown branch of the New Haven Free Public Library.

At IvesSquared, he said, city residents can learn to use 3-D printers, laser cutters, CNC maschines, computers with full Adobe suites, and virtual reality software.

“We wanted this to be our front door to innovation,” he said, “where you can discover some of the technology or opportunities to start a business that you can then take out into our other support programs.”

Thomas Breen photoECIC has also funded Collab, an entrepreneurship incubator and accelerator program run by Caroline Smith and Margaret Lee. That organization, which just held its third pitch day event in December, has helped around 20 ventures build their business ideas to be pitch ready, and prioritizes supporting businesses led by women and people of color.

Make Haven, the membership-based maker space Downtown, moved to a new larger location on Chapel Street with the support of ECIC funds, and increased its membership from around 160 members to around 260 members, Harris said. In addition to its stations for sewing, 3D printing, beer brewing, printmaking, resin casting, electronics buildings, woodworking, and, soon enough, metal working, Make Haven has hosted local entrepreneurs who have participated in nationwide competitions to build heavy-lift drones and Coast Guard life vests and even a 3D printed habitat for Mars.

“If we have a space where these people who already have these skills can go and can meet people who are interested in learning about them,” Harris said, “and work together where they don’t have to own the equipment themselves, we can see better ideas come out of it.”

Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent, the founder of Escape New Haven, said that his business recently rented a 1,500 square-foot space on the same floor as Make Haven simply because Make Haven is right next door.

Harris also cited the State House, a new performance venue on State Street, as an example of an ECIC-funded accessible concert venue and meeting space for local entrepreneurs looking to participate in roundtable discussions and local versions of TED Talks.

Harris told the commissioners that ECIC needs their help in supporting the creation of new office and lab spaces throughout New Haven, in advocating for better transportation infrastructure, particularly in regards to the Metro North rail connection to New York City and more flights coming into Tweed airport, and in spreading the word about all of these new job training opportunities to residents of every neighborhood.

“This is great,” said Development Commission Chair Pedro Soto. “It’s neat to see a grant that has so many deliverables in such a short period of time. It’s really noeat to see a high impact program like this. It speaks to the team behind it and it speaks to the whole grant.”

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posted by: ItsGettingBetter on January 8, 2019  5:19pm

Kudos. It really does seem that this money is being put to work in an effective way that will pay dividends in the near and long term.

posted by: anonymous on January 8, 2019  5:53pm

This is great.  But the state should be spending $20M/year on this type of activity, not $2M.  It’s a drop in the bucket.

Imagine if DECD scrapped the useless, $60M parking garage at Union Station and used that money instead to quadruple the size of ECIC, open the lab space that’s clearly needed, build citywide bus shelters, create a citywide network of safe bike lanes, fix broken crosswalks and fix up other neighborhood infrastructure that makes New Haven more attractive.  They’d even have $30M left over that they could give to West Haven.

posted by: nhindy on January 9, 2019  4:32pm

Groundhog day…

How about an initiative that studies why these recycled programs keep popping up despite their obvious lack of success? How about using the Google to see there are literally thousands of the same thing, not to mention years of them across CT and New Haven, that don’t work.

Entrepreneurship isn’t cool, no matter how you present it. It’s hard work and most aren’t cut out for it. The folks selling these programs only talent is self-promotion, to secure their own salaries.

And now they are going to fund a for-profit student-debt machine, Holberton, with tax payer dollars? Sweet deal for them.

Anyone wondering why start-up success rates are so low just needs to look at the reality distortion field surrounding these programs. Any objective business person who spends a day in one of these places will leave scratching their head at the obvious futility of them, and the waste of money.