Control Station, Inc. is a small Connecticut-based business that provides software for improving manufacturing efficiency and throughput. Like many Connecticut companies, Control Station came into being on the campus of the University of Connecticut. Today, the company is a recognized leader in its chosen field, and its diagnostic and optimization products are licensed to a global “who’s who” list of manufacturers.
Control Station was founded in 1988. Its original product simulated the behavior of common manufacturing processes. As an instructional aid, the software equipped university professors with a graphical tool for teaching abstract chemical engineering concepts. While successful in the world of academia, the company’s products lacked a clear application in industry.
In 2004, the company moved off campus with an ambitious plan, outside funding and new leadership. It became the first of many technology startups that would incubate inside the offices of Tolland-based Nerac, Inc. Having outgrown the startup label, Control Station represents one of the Connecticut’s many successful examples of entrepreneurship.
STARTING THE STARTUP
Most entrepreneurs will agree that launching a company, developing differentiated products and breaking into new markets are among the most difficult challenges in business. That perspective was shared by Dennis Nash, who took the helm of Control Station in 2004 shortly after receiving his Master’s in Business Administration from UConn and completing the plan to relaunch the company.
“Even the most detailed business plan requires you to start from a virtual standstill. Breaking through the inertia and putting a business in motion can feel like a Herculean effort. Fortunately I had lots of experience and plenty of help,” says Nash.
Nash brought nearly a dozen years of work experience to Control Station. He started his career in 1992, working for a venture-funded satellite communications company. In that first foray into the business world, Nash played a limited role in developing the company’s plan for a subsidiary called American Mobile Satellite Corporation—an entity now known as XM Radio. More importantly, he worked in business development alongside a team of entrepreneurs who would establish one high-tech startup after another over a decade.
Nash proved adept at pushing fledgling businesses forward. That was the case even when there was no clear plan for him to follow. “My first mentor once said that I operated exceptionally well in the midst of ambiguity,” says Nash. “Ambiguity is the hallmark of the startup experience—nothing is clear except the need to push forward.”
Shortly after 9/11, Nash shifted gears and pursued an MBA. The tech bubble had burst and he saw the need for skills that would complement his business development background. As a native of Connecticut, Nash received a scholarship from UConn that proved to be ideal. It enabled him to expand his knowledge of finance and operations. It also aligned him on a part-time basis with NextGen Ventures, a division of Connecticut Innovations.
The time spent dissecting business plans and scoring investment opportunities gave him valuable insight into how to structure a new venture. Nash would apply the lesson before graduating in the spring of 2004.
Nash remembers receiving a curious email during the second semester of his second year in the MBA program. “The email subject read: Local entrepreneur seeks business plan,” recalls Nash. At the time, he held a job offer from IBM and was actively exploring opportunities within Connecticut’s venture capital community.
“IBM had nearly 350,000 employees at the time and I was concerned that I’d become lost among the masses. The opportunity to start a company from scratch simply resonated with me,” he added.
The email inquiry had come from Kevin Bouley and Doug Cooper. Bouley was President of Nerac and Cooper was Control Station’s Founder and the head of the Chemical Engineering Department within UConn’s School of Engineering. The two had been considering how to leverage Control Station’s existing educational offering. A question that demanded an answer was: How big was the market opportunity? Another question that Nash ultimately answered was: Who should lead the company in pursuit of that opportunity?
After interviewing Nash, the two friends selected him to investigate the market and to draft a plan. As they would later share, Nash was the only candidate they interviewed for the role.
“I had all the pieces from my past experience,” says Nash. “I’d written and executed plans. I’d experienced both success and failure. At the time, no one else in the MBA program had those credentials.”
Nash took the lead and wrote himself into the plan as the company’s future President. Apparently it was time to get started.
Nash recalls that Control Station started with a small space inside the Nerac building—just 50 feet down the hallway from Bouley’s corner office.
“Kevin wanted to keep an eye on his investment. As for me, I wanted ready access to him and the other members of Nerac’s executive team,” Nash says. “The more questions they could answer for me, the more mistakes I could potentially avoid.”
With access to Nerac’s domain experts in Intellectual Property, Sales and Marketing, Legal and Human Resources and the like, Nash was able to capitalize on the environment Bouley had conceived and to avoid the type of misstep that could prove fatal.
Indeed, Control Station was just the first tenant engaged by Bouley and housed within Nerac. The number would grow steadily over the years and it would eventually become a magnet for entrepreneurial-minded individuals throughout Connecticut.
Nash enjoyed the benefits of being located in the Nerac building. “As the number of startups grew, it became easier to tap into other resources,” he noted. “There were a half dozen other CEOs—people who could provide feedback and advice, stimulate ideas and reveal failures—or ‘potholes in the road.’ We made a practice of catching up over beers on Friday afternoons.”
Control Station was an important part of Bouley’s vision to use available space within Nerac to host what he calls “techpreneurs”—technology-based startups that are building “the next generation of entrepreneurial talent” in Connecticut. Today multiple companies use Nerac as their headquarters.
Control Station’s Connecticut location proved to be a bonus both at the start and as the company has grown. “Connecticut has a highly educated workforce and the state’s university system produces a steady stream of potential employees,” says Nash.
Over the years, he’s actively looked for UConn graduates and he’s tapped into the student community for internships. According to Nash, the majority of Control Station’s employees have one or more degrees from UConn.
Access to financial resources is another important success factor for companies as they transition from startup to established company. Control Station developed relationships with local banks and secured a line of credit that has helped it to stabilize cash flow during the usual ups and downs of business.
More recently, Control Station has capitalized on programs available to small businesses through the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development. In particular, grant programs, such as the Small Business Express Program, facilitated the hire of additional interns and full-time staff.
Through its support, the state is enabling Control Station to build a stronger foundation for growth.
Nash maintains that, “Innovation is occurring all around us. There are lots of people like me—people who have desire to build something new.”
COMMITMENT, INNOVATION AND GROWTH
One of the things Nash says he enjoys most about Control Station is working with creative and committed people. “We’re a small company and most of my staff have been with the company a long time. We’re like family. We rely on each other,” Nash emphasizes.
Nash also likes tackling problems and knowing the impact of his contribution. He has significantly helped Control Station to enhance its portfolio of products and services. Since taking over, Nash has seen the company’s industrial customer base boom. Their diagnostic and optimization products have been licensed to manufacturing plants located in more than 40 countries. Several global OEMs, such as Rockwell Automation and Yokogawa, either reference or private-label Control Station products. Today their software is widely viewed as best-in-class.
With the steady addition of new staff Nash chose to move the company’s offices and shift his focus to refining its growth strategy. “All those years operating out of Nerac allowed us to get our sea legs. We outgrew the space and are looking forward to the next stage of our evolution,” he says.
With regard to the future, Nash says he’s always looking at “what’s the next opportunity—and what are the associated risks.” With new product capabilities under development and new customers in the pipeline, Control Station’s outlook looks bright.