A Startup Scene Blooms
Ahmed Khattak started an ecommerce business in New Haven, eventually moving it to Seattle. By 2014, he decided he was ready for a new opportunity and a new location.
Friends advised him to start his next company in San Francisco. Instead he choose Stamford.
‘We looked around and said, Connecticut is home. I think it has makings of a great place for tech in general.’ Ahmed Khattak, CEO of US Mobile
“We looked around and said, Connecticut is home,” said Mr. Khattak, a Yale University graduate who now runs US Mobile, a cellphone-service provider. “I think it has makings of a great place for tech in general.”
Though it is home to well-known technology companies such as Priceline Group Inc. and its subsidiary Kayak.com, Connecticut’s dispersed startup community has operated in the shadows of New York and Boston for years. That is changing, founders and investors said, as greater access to funding and entrepreneurial programs are helping the state’s startup scene gain footing.
Hugh Seaton, chief executive of Stamford-based Aquinas Training, which develops management-training software, has been working on bringing Connecticut’s entrepreneurs together.
“There is a lot of talent in Connecticut, but it doesn’t concentrate as easily as it does in some other places,” he said.
Mr. Seaton, along with the Stamford Innovation Center, which offers office space for new businesses and hosts networking events, began in 2015 to organize hackathons, where designers and programmers get together to collaborate on projects.
Sal Syed, CEO of Arccos, which makes tools to track and analyze a golfer’s game, demonstrates the sensor attached to a golf club at the company’s headquarters in Stamford, Conn. Photo: Michelle McLoughliln for The Wall Street Journal
Now he and the center, where he serves as operations manager, are planning a series of hackathons focused on transportation and water management. They will take place through the fall along I-95, with events scheduled in Stamford, Bridgeport, New Haven, New London and Providence, R.I.
“We are beginning to knit these communities together,” said Barry Schwimmer, founder and managing partner for the Stamford Innovation Center.
In New Haven, David Salinas, chief executive of design agency Digital Surgeons, is leading efforts to turn a former bus depot into a 105,000-square-foot tech hub called the District. It will be located on a 9.3-acre campus on the bank of the Mill River, complete with a beer garden and kayak launch. It is slated to open in 2017.
“There is nice smattering of different types of companies that are happening,” Mr. Salinas said. “Over time, as density starts to happen, especially in cities like New Haven, you are really going to start to see that bolster.”
It is initiatives like those that have made Connecticut’s startup community more vibrant, said James Boyle, managing director of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, a program that helps students launch companies.
“Things are much different now in 2016 compared to 2007 when we first started,” he said. “Back then it was markedly harder for people to find people, dollars, infrastructure support and sort of an ecosystem to help them.”
Venture capital and private-equity groups invested $402.5 million in Connecticut startups last year, a 43% increase from the $280.5 million invested in 2006, according to Dow Jones VentureSouce.
Daniel Sarfati, chief executive of enterprise-software provider Applango, decided three years ago to move his company to Stamford from Israel because he wanted the firm to be near its investors, but found New York and Boston too expensive.
“We found a nice investment community here,” he said.
Many of the startup dollars flowing into Connecticut have gone to the biopharmaceutical and medical-software industry around New Haven.
The city “has become a hotbed for really early-stage biotech,” said Elon Boms, managing director of LaunchCapital, a venture-capital firm with offices in New Haven.
Ten years ago there were only a handful of successful startups there, he said. “Now there are about 30 or 40 startups locally that are all moving the ball in very meaningful way.”
An intern makes printed circuit boards at the golf-analysis start-up Arccos’ headquarters in Stamford, Conn. Photo: Michelle McLoughliln for The Wall Street Journal
Proximity to New York City has also been a boon for Stamford firms, said Sal Syed, chief executive of Arccos, a company that makes tools to track and analyze golf performances. Many of his 25 employees commute from New York, he said.
Connecticut’s business environment is often associated with hedge funds, something that startup founders say can be an obstacle to attracting tech-savvy college grads they hope to employ.
“That association needs to change,” Mr. Syed said.
While Connecticut is unlikely to rival Silicon Valley’s hold on the tech sector, Mr. Bom said, that isn’t the point.
“We got about 100 meaningful startups in the Greater New Haven area. If we can get 300 meaningful startups that are well funded, with north of 50 employees,” he said, “that would be an amazing, achievable path.”