Obiocha, new head of CTNext, Legislature aims to expand state’s startup ecosystem

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In January 2020, when Melissa Melonson made the transition and renamed her marketing agency Lumi Hospitality to focus almost exclusively on the leisure, travel and real estate industries, she could not have imagined the devastating impact that the global pandemic would have two months later on these sectors and its net result of the young company.

“Nearly 50% of my [client] contracts were suspended… overnight, which was very scary,” said Melonson, who founded her company in 2016.

Wanting to stay true to her vision while pivoting her business model, Melonson turned to a business mentorship program through CTNext, a public organization that helps manage, support and build the startup ecosystem, the new business development and innovation throughout the state.

“We have always been above all a digital agency with the [vast majority] of our work done online,” Melonson said. But this summer [2020]with the approval of the city of Hartford, we began to make [in-person] events, our “Picnic in the Park” series, which allowed people to safely gather, listen to live music and enjoy [Hartford’s] Bushnell Park.

She said the pivot has helped her business become better known locally, and in 2021, in-person events and programs generated about 25% of Lumi’s revenue.

Last year, the company grew from three to eight employees and plans to double its workforce in 2022.

“CTNext’s mentorship was really helpful at a time when we were trying to figure out how to move forward successfully,” Melonson said.

Lumi Hospitality’s progress – and its survival during the pandemic – is a microcosm of the work that Onyeka “Ony” Obiocha, CTNext’s new executive director, would like to replicate, while expanding the reach and diversity of Connecticut’s entrepreneurial ecosystems.

These have largely been built over the past five years around CTNext’s innovation locations in Hartford/East Hartford, Groton/New London, New Haven and Stamford, each anchored by key industry sectors.

Obiocha, 32, from Windsor, takes the reins of CTNext after the state legislature approved in 2021 $64.2 million in five-year general bonds to continue funding the organization’s operations .

Since its inception in 2016, more than 2,100 startups and startups have participated in CTNext’s programming, which has created or supported more than 17,000 jobs in the state, according to the group.

CTNext also provided direct grants to 300 companies, which leveraged more than $67 million in private capital, he said.

“I look forward to continuing the success of [CTNext] and incorporating lessons learned from years of work in and around Connecticut,” said Obiocha, who has been involved with CTNext as chair of the board of its New Haven Innovation Places program.

He also founded an Elm City cafe.

Wide lens

Obiocha’s experience includes serving as Managing Director of the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale University and a stint as Director of Embedded Capital and Learning for the New York-based Heron Foundation, where he helped manage a $350 million endowment aimed at helping communities. create social and economic change.

Obiocha said one of his top priorities as he takes on his new leadership role is to assess what worked well and what needs improvement to better help entrepreneurs.

“We need to have a lot of honest conversations with all stakeholders to make sure we’re building what we need in the service of [entrepreneurs],” he said.

While major corporate and institutional partners like Yale and UConn are vital to the state’s innovation ecosystems, Obiocha said he wants to ensure the voice of small startups is heard and the ecosystem is sufficiently wide to attract entrepreneurs beyond the priority sectors of the State.

“I want the senior developer of a [startup] technology company to be super excited about the new [startup] café, … or the underground art scene,” he said.

Rishabh Agarwal, founder of Peer Robotics agrees. In November, Agarwal — who was first exposed to Hartford’s startup ecosystem through a Techstars Accelerator program in partnership with Stanley Black & Decker — moved from India to Hartford to grow his business, which focuses on enhanced robotic automation for manufacturing.

Agarwal said proximity to the state’s robust aerospace and manufacturing centers was a key reason for moving to Hartford, but equally appealing were the resources the area has for start-up companies like his.

“The presence of an ecosystem of developers attracted us [to Hartford] as a place where we can start and expand our business,” he said.

Peer Robotics’ offices will be based in Upward Hartford’s coworking space at 20 Church St., and the company will be hiring for business development and engineering positions.

Michelle Côté, director of Launc[H]artford, CTNext’s innovation hub for the Hartford area, said the close-knit startup community has been a value proposition for Greater Hartford.

“The quality of the connections we make, the industry expertise and the unique mix of assets [in the state] offers many benefits to entrepreneurs,” said Côté.

With a focus on insurtech, medtech and advanced manufacturing, over the past three years, Launc[H]artford has supported the creation of 54 businesses and developed another 120, she said.

He has also provided over 6,000 hours of mentoring to startups.

Whether it’s technical assistance, mentors, interns or venture capital, said Cote, his organization – and other startup and innovation players in the region, including ReSet, Upward Hartford and MakerspaceCT – are able to help entrepreneurs access multiple resources to meet their needs.

COVID disruption

Marty Guay, vice president of business development for Stanley Black & Decker, which runs its Manufactory 4.0 “smart factory” at Constitution Plaza in downtown Hartford, said the state’s and CTNext’s commitment to innovation is valuable, but that scaling up these efforts will be critical to long-term growth.

“Connecticut needs to evolve because of its size and that will take a lot of collaboration among many stakeholders,” Guay said.

He said the state’s startup community needs to attract more venture capital, a long-standing problem in Connecticut.

COVID-19 has had a disruptive effect on Hartford’s startup ecosystem, including forcing the exit of Startupbootcamp, the London-based company that was hired to run two of Hartford’s technology-focused acceleration programs. insurance and health. Efforts to attract entrepreneurs from around the world have also slowed due to travel and other restrictions.

Some boosters have warned that Startupbootcamp’s exit from both accelerators should serve as a warning that the burgeoning startup community that has grown in the three years leading up to the pandemic could collapse without support and funding. increased audience.

However, while there have been setbacks, the state has also made progress overall.

Bloomberg News in 2022 named Connecticut the fourth most innovative economy in the United States, and Inc. Magazine in 2021 ranked Hartford #5 among American cities where tech talent is actually moving.

Jessica Dodge, director of operations and programs at CT Next, said what her organization has created to date is still relatively new and evolving.

CTNext’s services include an internship program that connects local college students with area startups.

“Our places of innovation were unprecedented here in Connecticut and five years later we may need to make some adjustments, but it’s meant to be an iterative process,” she said. “There are ripe opportunities to ensure that entrepreneurs and startups in any industry sector feel they can come to CTNext and navigate through [the ecosystem].”

It’s what Obiocha calls a continuum of care for startups.

“It’s about looking at the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem from the first time an entrepreneur has a [business] idea, and how we [can] get them on the path and give them the resources they need to succeed,” Obiocha said.

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