In June 2017, the communities of Hartford and East Hartford were selected as one of four Innovation Places in Connecticut.

Michelle Cote, Instructor & Director, Strategic Partnerships for the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation (CCEI) at the University of Connecticut School of Business, has been spearheading much of the initiative, serving as Director of Hartford/East Hartford Innovation Place.

Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price checked in with Michelle to learn more.

NAN PRICE: Give us a little background about Innovation Places.

MICHELLE COTE: In early 2017, CTNext issued a call to communities from around the state to develop strategies that would make their places more visible and vibrant hubs of entrepreneurship. A dozen communities responded, and the strategy developed by Hartford and East Hartford was chosen for investment and designation as one of the state’s four Innovation Places. The other three Innovation Places are Stamford, New Haven, and Thames River, which is a partnership between Groton and New London.

Through the Innovation Places program, CTNext will invest up to $2 million each year, for three years, in matching funds ($1:$1 minimum) to other investments made to advance innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives in Hartford and East Hartford.

NAN: Let’s talk about Hartford/East Hartford Innovation Place.

MICHELLE: It all started about 18 months ago, when several community members came together to work on the planning phase of our strategy. The opportunity to receive designation as an Innovation Place helped us zoom out and look our community and understand how our anchor institutions could complement each other in new ways. It’s different than how we normally operate—concentrating on our own distinct missions, visions, and goals. We worked together to identify not only Hartford and East Hartford’s strengths, but also key areas where further investment is needed to achieve our community’s full potential to become a robust hub of innovation activity.

Now that we’re in the implementation phase, we work one-on-one with each project lead to support achievement of mutual goals. We have also created a board and a governance structure to help us stay accountable to our strategic objectives and continue to broaden our outreach process to other key members of the community.

NAN: How has the mission and vision progressed?

MICHELLE: When we evaluated our region’s economic drivers, three pillar industries immediately came into focus: Insurance, healthcare and medical technologies, and advanced manufacturing. All three of these industries are also undergoing significant change driven by new technologies, globally.

We realized we needed to engage these economic pillars of our community in thoughtful conversations about their innovation priorities and find ways to support them in doing so that also served our region’s broader economic and community development goals. By looking for these “win-wins” we would help highlight new opportunities for entrepreneurs, and help our anchors stay relevant and grow within a rapidly changing marketplace.

To our delight, Travelers, The Hartford, Cigna, and Hartford HealthCare responded immediately to help us get things started. In the past year, Stanley Black & Decker and Aetna also became important partners helping drive change in each industry.

We’ve also engaged several of our community’s higher education institutions to help prepare talent for careers in an innovation-driven environment. The University of Connecticut, the University of Hartford, Trinity College, and Goodwin College are all actively engaged, and/or delivering programming that is part of our Innovation Place effort.

And, finally, our partnerships with the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology (CCAT), reSET, MakerspaceCT, Connecticut Science Center, The iQuilt Plan, Riverfront Recapture, and International Hartford have helped us identify ways new ways to support emerging entrepreneurs and connect them with the broader community.

NAN: Tell us about your role as director of Innovation Places Hartford/East Hartford.

MICHELLE: My primary role is to lead a community-wide strategy to make Hartford a great place to launch and grow a business. I convene and facilitate conversations that help direct investment that attracts and supports entrepreneurs and the talent they need to realize their potential.

We have assembled working groups for each part of our community’s overall strategy. Additionally, I lead a Board of Directors dedicated to defining the strategy, removing obstacles, and championing the innovation efforts in these cities.

For our InsurTech effort, Travelers, Cigna, The Hartford, and Aetna helped provide direction for the design and implementation of Hartford InsurTech Accelerator, which is the first component of the Hartford InsurTech Hub.

The MedTech working group includes leadership from Hartford HealthCare and strong involvement from Trinity College, UConn, Connecticut Health Foundation, and a local serial digital health entrepreneur.

In advanced manufacturing, we’re working with Stanley Black & Decker, CCAT, Goodwin College, and the University of Hartford. Much of that work includes specific interventions to help area manufacturers improve precision and efficiency by incorporating advanced manufacturing techniques and augmenting the talent pipeline needed to meet increasing production demand.

Building an innovation ecosystem in Hartford wouldn’t be complete without investing in placemaking activities and ways to increase “social capabilities,” which is a term we use for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of connections across the ecosystem. We have engaged partners in this space, so our entrepreneurs have a sense of community, support, and a vibrant place to live and or work.

I work closely with each working group and partners across the community to share information about new programs and resources being developed by other partners, track the progress of each initiative and the growth of the community as whole, and identify and recruit new partners.

The progress we’ve made is truly because of the involvement and collaboration of so many community members. We’re finding new ways to work together that will benefit everyone. Seeing how much energy everyone is bringing to that shared goal has been inspiring.

Over the past year, it’s been incredibly rewarding to launch new initiatives with our original partners and find new ways of working with companies and organizations that have been making important contributions to our community on their own.

We get stronger with every new partnership—new perspectives open new possibilities. And as energy is added to our efforts, momentum continues to build.  We’re proving to even the most skeptical critics that we have a unique moment to work with right now and by working together, we can reinvent our community.

NAN: Can you share some of the accomplishments since the organization began?

MICHELLE: I’m proud that we have proven we can work together as a community to tackle challenges that are bigger than each of us could address—or make visible impact against on our own.

On the investment side of things, more than 20 different initiatives throughout the community have received some sort of matching funding through the Hartford/East Hartford Innovation Place program.

College students have participated in eye-opening programs and summer internships through reSET and high school and middle school students have gained exposure to new career paths in manufacturing and practiced skills through Goodwin College and Trinity College. Free community workshops in Arduino, and other advanced technology skills have been hosted by MakerspaceCT.

We piloted a new food truck zone outside of Hartford Hospital one day a week over the summer and hope to continue to bring new foot traffic to that part of the city next spring.

Innovation Places also helped to ignite the local InsurTech scene in Hartford, through the development of Hartford’s InsurTech Accelerator. The initiative was developed by the Hartford InsurTech Hub, powered by Startupbootcamp.

The buzz for the accelerator program rippled throughout the community. Most importantly, four of the 10 participating startups found Hartford such a great place to grow their business, they decided to establish an office here. As a result of this success, the city of Hartford received designation from the National League of Cities and Schmidt Futures, as “the country’s premier destination for insurance technology” in conjunction with its new initiative, the City Innovation Ecosystems program.

In the next six months, we’ll see a similar program emerge focused on digital health technologies and we’ll launch an advanced manufacturing thought leadership speaker series with Stanley Black & Decker.

NAN: How are all these initiatives making Hartford have sticking power?

MICHELLE: That’s a good question. We realized from the beginning of our planning process that Hartford’s strongest building block for a robust innovation ecosystem is industry. This is because of the concentration of Fortune 500 companies located here and their ability to serve as critical sources of market feedback and proof-of-concept partners and then, ultimately, customers for early-stage technology companies.

We’ve seen the same benefit provided to startups with the Stanley+Techstars Accelerator and reSET’s Impact Accelerator. Soon we’ll be seeing it in a new digital health program to be announced this spring.

And, we’re starting to develop meaningful partnerships with higher education partners to link students interested in innovation and emerging technologies with opportunities to work with startups and help fill those companies’ need for growth talent.

However, we must be realistic as a community and admit we have a way to go in making Hartford feel like a great place to not only access industry expertise, but also to live, work, and play. It’s one of the reasons we’ve embarked on new partnerships with the Connecticut Science Center, Riverfront Recapture, and iQuilt.

Helping entrepreneurs realize the great lifestyle and recreation assets we have here in Greater Hartford will be key to making it feel like a place more people can call home. And, we think providing opportunities to shape the future of our community will accelerate that process.

NAN: How can Hartford/East Hartford as a community make that happen?

MICHELLE: It’s all about increasing the concentration and visibility of activity that’s happening here. Soon, we’ll have four different accelerator programs attracting top entrepreneurs to our city, often for the first time. The timing of those programs has been designed to ensure there’s overlap amongst each, as well as year-round innovation activity happening here in Hartford.

We’re also working on establishing new partnerships between our educational institutions and industry-led innovation initiatives, so we can develop new talent pipelines that will help fuel growth in next-generation technology and our entire community.

And, finally, we need to continue expanding the number of partners involved in the effort and inviting new participants to contribute to the continuous evolution of our community.

We’re proud of the new partnerships we’ve established this year, but it will take a much broader network to truly scale the initiatives that have started to open new opportunities for Hartford. There’s a place in this effort for everyone and making Hartford a leading center of innovation that drives the 4th Industrial Revolution will require contributions from many.

NAN: What does this initiative need to continue its success? And how does someone get involved?

MICHELLE: Innovation Places has been trying to engage in conversations with as many stakeholders who have a vested interest in the future of this community as possible. The most important objective of those conversations is always to understand what’s important to stakeholders and discover opportunities to advance mutual goals.

Additionally, in 2019 we’ll be working with a Connecticut-based marketing firm to help us develop an “innovation” branding strategy for Greater Hartford that will include campaigns and communication highlighting all the assets our city has to offer.

More than anything, what we need to grow as a community is creative thinking and a belief that we’re capable of turning our city into the place we want it to be. While it’s true that our region has faced and will continue to deal with several large challenges, new possibilities have also started to emerge. But we need partners to turn the opportunity into reality.

The best way to get involved always starts with a conversation. If you’ve identified something that will help support continued growth in innovation and have ideas about how to do that, we want to talk with you. And, until we roll out our new communication platform in the spring, the best way to connect is to shoot me an email:

NAN: What’s next for Hartford/East Hartford Innovation Places?

MICHELLE: We already proved that our community can be a great environment to support and accelerate the development of new, early-stage technology companies. The next step will be building out other resources and the connections between them to prove this is a great place to grow a business.

We’ll focus on creating an environment where later-stage startups and scaleups can still interact with industry, but also benefit from strong connections to talent, capital, new spaces, and a tremendous quality of life. We want those companies to recognize our region as a great environment to support their growth—but recognition from the outside starts with each of us who are already here.

We need to take it upon ourselves to celebrate the progress we’re making and the tremendous assets we have in this region— and share that with people we interact with, whether that’s locally, regionally, nationally, or globally. Our pride will inspire others to join us.

Learn more about Hartford/East Harford Innovation Places (PDF)

Learn more about Innovation Places