Innovation Destination Hartford spoke with Joanne Berger-Sweeney, Trinity College President and Professor of Neuroscience to learn about the many ways the college supports and encourages entrepreneurship and innovative activity at the school and throughout Connecticut.
INNOVATION DESTINATION HARTFORD: What types of entrepreneurial and innovative initiatives are happening at Trinity?
JOANNE BERGER-SWEENEY: We are in the midst of implementing our bicentennial strategic plan, Summit, and for us, much of what we’re doing at this moment is entrepreneurial and innovative, in the broadest sense of the terms.
As Trinity is a liberal arts college located in a city and with an accredited engineering program, entrepreneurship and innovation are part of our DNA. The success of our alumni certainly attests to this.
As one recent example, we’ve partnered with Capital Community College to open the Liberal Arts Action Lab at 10 Constitution Plaza. This is an innovative program that matches real-world community challenges with interdisciplinary teams of students and faculty to offer concrete solutions.
As we design our new space in One Constitution Plaza, we’re looking forward to the possibilities that will open for even greater promotion of innovation and entrepreneurship, including strengthening our graduate-level offerings.
IDH: Trinity College received a portion of a $30 million CTNext Innovation Places grant. What does the college plan to do with the funding?
BERGER-SWEENEY: Yes, Trinity is a key partner in the Hartford/East Hartford Innovation Places Planning Team selected to receive a share of $30 million in statewide funding to spark economic development and investment in innovation.
Our team will receive up to $2 million in implementation grant funds in fiscal year 2018, which is the first of up to three years of renewable funding through the state-funded program administered by CTNext.
During the first year, a lot of organizational and planning work among the team members has taken place to lay the groundwork and to contribute to a growing community of innovators, entrepreneurs, and tech-based business growth. One of our primary goals is identifying partners to invest in the areas around Trinity and Hartford Hospital, to establish a thriving live/learn/work destination through investments in placemaking and small-business development.
Pop-up food festivals in the Broad Street and Washington Street corridors are being planned for May and June. The first pop-up festival took place on April 23 at Trinfo.Café on Broad Street. The festivals are a partnership between the college, Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner, International Hartford, and Hartford Hospital, and their goal is to use food as a medium for building community and a sense of place. The support from CTNext has been key to spurring the collaboration and ideation that is moving Hartford and our neighborhood forward.
IDH: Can you provide some insight into the growing medical technology innovation (MedTech) district?
BERGER-SWEENEY: The MedTech Innovation District initiative will create a healthcare incubator/accelerator to attract and support entrepreneurs by connecting them with various stakeholders who will support the development of medical devices, digital health technologies, and health care analytics. Stakeholder groups include clinical providers, academics, government and other regulatory bodies, and corporate and risk capital sources.
The incubator/accelerator isn’t just a physical location. It’s a density of resources attractive to startup companies and entrepreneurs. Trinity and University of Connecticut faculty, staff, and students will work directly with teams at Hartford Hospital and its Center for Simulation, Education and Innovation (CESI) to connect emerging entrepreneurs who have developed the most promising new technologies with the technical and patient care expertise needed to determine the degree to which product concepts or prototypes will be successful.
IDH: In the fall 2017 Trinity Reporter you were quoted as saying, “We want to create opportunities and the relative conditions that encourage students to stay in Connecticut, in general, and Hartford, in particular.” How is Trinity providing these opportunities?
BERGER-SWEENEY: As I mentioned earlier, at 10 Constitution Plaza, our Liberal Arts Action Lab collaboration with Capital Community College is providing a unique opportunity for college students to engage with Hartford organizations and to learn the value of collaborative problem solving. When students work with local organizations on research projects, just as when they hold internships with local companies, those experiences often lead to students accepting their first job after graduation right here in Hartford.
Another way we’re encouraging students to stay in Connecticut is by connecting them from the moment they arrive on campus to opportunities in the city of Hartford. We have a first-year system called the Bantam Network and integrating students into the life of the city is part of that program’s mission.
Trinity College also has a long and rich history of community learning and urban engagement, and the terrific work of our Center for Urban and Global Studies and our Community Learning Initiative contribute to creating the conditions for students staying in the state. Our Center for Student Success and Career Development also does a phenomenal job of connecting students with local internships and experiential opportunities in Hartford and throughout the state.
But certainly, as an institution with a national and international profile, as well as deep roots in the state of Connecticut, we’re always looking to see how we can retain more students. Given the strength of our liberal arts graduates and career opportunities in the state, I expect Trinity to become even more successful in shaping Connecticut’s workforce.
IDH: Tell us about your involvement with the Connecticut Higher Education Innovation & Entrepreneurship Working Group, which you co-chaired.
BERGER-SWEENEY: It was a real honor to co-chair the Higher Education Innovation & Entrepreneurship Working Group with Mark Ojakian. Especially exciting was the fact that it represented the first time college and university presidents in the state met as a group, bringing together 35 vastly different institutions into the same space to focus on the future.
Over the course of six months, and after four meetings and 18 site visits, there was a great deal of energy and consensus in the group about a plan for supporting innovation and entrepreneurship in the state. In particular, we all affirmed the potential of Connecticut’s ecosystem and the invaluable role of institutions of higher education, especially as we partner in new ways and leverage our collective power.
The Connecticut Higher Education Innovation & Entrepreneurship Working Group’s final report, “Entrepreneurship & Innovation in Connecticut’s Higher Education System” is available from the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges (CCIC).
IDH: Where do you see the landscape for entrepreneurial and innovative activity in Greater Hartford?
BERGER-SWEENEY: At the core of innovation are ideas, and higher education is really about ideas. It’s about taking those ideas and turning them into something that’s useful for society, part of the societal good. So, to me, innovation and entrepreneurship dovetail with higher education incredibly well.
I see this landscape as only growing, with higher education playing a core role. My hope is that the work we do collectively will be a national model of what’s possible when we’re willing to engage in creative partnerships. As a region that has inspired so many inventions and creativity over the centuries, Greater Hartford’s ecosystem for innovation and entrepreneurship is poised to surprise us all.
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