This piece by John Sterns originally appeared in the Hartford Business Journal December 5, 2016.
Shana Schlossberg envisions her new venture in downtown Hartford’s Stilts Building to be a hive of entrepreneurial and creative energy that will spin off new high-tech businesses, grow existing ones, foster investments, launch connections, inspire youth, create jobs and fuel game-changing robotic and wearable technology innovations that could be manufactured here.
“When an accelerator, incubator, ecosystem is built in the middle of town, its purpose is for everyone,” said Schlossberg, founder and CEO of Innovate Hartford, a co-working space that will also host seminars and other events to support innovation.
Work is still underway on Innovate Hartford’s 27,453-square-foot, two-floor space beginning on the mezzanine of the office tower at 20 Church Street, but the group already occupies temporary co-working space on the 17th floor where companies can work until the permanent space is completed in February. The permanent space will have desks for co-working, private offices, common areas with high tops and couches for lounging and networking, an area for games like Ping Pong, a meditation room, conference rooms and a robotics and wearables lab. Two companies are already in the temporary space, two more will enter before January 1 and others are reserving the main area.
Innovate Hartford is recruiting existing tech companies from inside and outside the United States and aims to have 100 of them within a year. Innovate Hartford, which is taking no public money itself, is serving as a conduit to help other companies apply for state grants or other assistance to make the transition to Connecticut easier.
“How do you start an ecosystem? You can’t say, ‘Okay, we’ll sit around wait for people to come.’ … You have to jumpstart it,” Schlossberg said of companies that become magnets for other companies, entrepreneurs, professional-services providers and investors.
Schlossberg, 35, who’s been in tech her entire career and exudes confidence in Innovate Hartford’s mission and its ability to help the region’s economy, looks forward to joining the city’s innovation space and says local investors are hungry for Connecticut companies in which to invest.
“I can name, 20, 30, and more of them who are living in this area, who have a lot of money and are spending it on startups in Silicon Valley, are investing in New York,” she said.
They would like more companies to choose from locally and are willing to invest in Innovate Hartford real estate to meet Connecticut companies they and others may want to invest in and which are attracted to the space, Schlossberg said.
About $2.8 million is being spent on the Stilts space, roughly $1 million by the building’s New York owner, Shelbourne Global Solutions LLC, for which Schlossberg’s brother, Benjamin, is a managing member, and the rest by investors split roughly evenly between those in Hartford, including Alan Lazowski, chairman, CEO and founder of Hartford’s LAZ Parking, and outside of Hartford. Shelbourne is not part of Innovate Hartford, but has negotiated a 20-year lease with it.
With Innovate Hartford’s model generating rent from existing tech companies, Schlossberg envisions being able to offer a few free seats to some early stage startups with great ideas, giving them access to experts and mentors in the building, connecting them to universities and others who can help them.
“Suddenly, I’m building the incubator that is self-sustaining because I’m not taking any additional money from investors for that incubator that every other incubator has to,” she said.
“But in a true ecosystem, you need the base, the solid base of companies, which is why these 100 companies will be so important, to show these are 100 companies creating jobs, creating revenue for the state, they’re making Hartford better and bigger,” she said.
That’s where the incubator comes in, generating the next great idea or technology. She’s intrigued by wearable and robotic technology, but is open to other technology incubation.
Michael Cantor, chairman of Connecticut Innovations and co-managing partner of the Cantor Colburn intellectual property law firm, is impressed by Schlossberg.
“I have now been working with her for quite a number of months and I’ve been at many, many meetings with her—she is for real,” Cantor said. “She is putting her money where her mouth is.”
She’s seen the ecosystem for entrepreneurs and startups Connecticut has already created through programs like CTNext and those of the state Department of Economic and Community Development and wants to be part of it, he said.
“It’s very, very exciting and when she says she’s going to bring a hundred companies here in the next year, I believe her,” Cantor said, praising her contacts and connections with universities, governments and others in the innovation ecosystem.
“She’s doing it the right way, she’s not looking to be an island,” he said. “It’s all about connectivity when you’re talking about developing an ecosystem.”
Schlossberg, who lives in New York City and visits weekly, intends to move part of her own company, EZBZ, to the space, and eventually spend about half her time in Hartford. Schlossberg, EZBZ’s founder and CEO, created the technology platform in 2011 to connect small businesses in real time to consumers looking for their services. Consumers type in what they’re looking for, EZBZ provides a list of providers who are available and their costs. It’s up to the consumer to reach out to the provider they want.
“The core of me is a social entrepreneur,” she said. “When I went into EZBZ, what drove me there was I really wanted to create a platform that’s equal opportunity for small businesses,” she said. “I have a lot of wearable ideas. EZBZ’s artificial intelligence, it’s natural next step is a robot walking around your house taking note of what needs to be fixed or what doesn’t.”
Schlossberg, who grew up in Baltimore in an ultra-orthodox Jewish household where her father was a rabbi and mother a teacher, left home at 14 for Israel to pursue her studies there and where she got her first bachelor’s degree at age 19, in math and computer science, and immediately got a job in the Israeli technology industry in 1999.
She started with Amdocs as a project manager and business analyst, where she led the development and implementation of projects for Verizon and SBC (currently AT&T), according to a bio provided on her. She later was a senior business analyst/project manager at Hewlett-Packard during which she participated in the New York City Emergency Communication Transformation Program after 9/11 as a liaison to the fire department and developed and implemented GIS and other solutions to improve emergency response in the five boroughs. Prior to founding EZBZ, she was the founder and CEO of Israel Now, a chain of 40 local news websites in Israel, which offered comprehensive advertising, marketing and PR solutions for more than 25,000 local and small businesses.
During her career, she also got a master’s degree in bioinformatics in Israel and, after moving to Dallas with Amdocs, got another bachelor’s in premed at the University of Texas-Arlington, thinking she’d become a neurosurgeon, before she changed gears.
If she weren’t running EZBZ and trying to transform Hartford’s economy, Schlossberg said she’d probably be a neurosurgeon, traveling the world as an opera singer (she sings opera professionally) or seeking the presidency.
“I have my eyes set on Washington,” she said. “You have to think big.”
Learn more about Innovate Hartford at www.innovatehartford.com.