Katherine Warman Kern
When we think of innovation, we think of the venture-backed Unicorns so visible in the media. The rest — the 99 percent of innovation — is an enigma, but one that is being solved every day in environments throughout the state of Connecticut at facilities designed to foster innovation, creativity and collaboration for today’s new breed of entrepreneurs.
By way of example, since we opened Comradity in July 2014, more than 60 entrepreneurs, ranging from pilot stage startups to going concerns, now make their home every day at our place. And, equally interesting, corporations like GE, Philips, Beiersdorf, ConEd use our meeting rooms and services because of that “good vibes” environment.
Recognizing the importance and potential of entrepreneurism on Connecticut’s economy, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy came to Comradity on Aug. 17 to hear from these innovators to determine how to maximize that potential. A cross-section of businesses was represented at the event: multigender and multicultural entrepreneurs, including venture-backed startups, retail consumer businesses — which add social value by trading with emerging economies around the world — and the 99 percent of innovation: boutique services and products with local, national, even global reach, whose revenues come from corporations and corporate “intrepreneurs” from GE and ConED.
How that discussion translates into action remains to be seen, but the very fact that such an event took place is significant since it acknowledges awareness of its importance to our state’s economic growth.
On a related note, in a separate event one week later, Comradity was visited by more than 35 incoming Sacred Heart University freshmen entering the Jack Welch College of Business. We invited each to introduce themselves with an image that represents the values they bring to business.
Many aspire to be entrepreneurs. Few talked about finding the shortest path or exit to making the most money, which many assume millennial business values to be. Even more encouraging, most are more interested in building a sustainable business with integrity.
Connecticut has the potential to be the place where these young people realize their dream. With corporations, entrepreneurs, universities, agencies, museums, artists, open space, farms, venture capital funds based here for easy access to innovation centers like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, we have it all: mission, vision, execution, risk, commercialization, research, education, inspiration and quality of life.
But ironically in a state called Connecticut, all these resources are disconnected.
Indeed, we started Comradity because we know how important it is to connect the dots in creating and executing new ideas. But 99 percent of innovation works in a vacuum. Entrepreneurs aren’t the only ones working in a vacuum. Corporate champions of innovation — “intrepreneurs” — share that they spin their wheels. What’s good for one division or department may not be good for another.
Analysts measure the amount of cash burned to fund new ideas. But no one measures the human capital burn rate.
We are all familiar with incubators and accelerators. These models can work, but they often are either too narrow or too broad in their focus.
They are too narrow when what they do is to help define the product or service better, help the entrepreneur assemble a business plan, offer ancillary services, like legal, HR, IT or finance, or help them put together an investor or customer pitch.
They are too broad when they help the entrepreneur build a comprehensive strategic business plan, with all the bells and whistles, including SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, financial projections, probably future pricing, and market research analytics.
The 99 percent of innovation need alternatives to invest human capital more productively. They need:
1. Safe haven — a neutral territory where innovative corporations and entrepreneurs with a fresh perspective may collaboratively innovate, confidentially and without risking giving away ideas for nothing.
2. Business model strategy — reveal the highest and best value of new ideas to customers.
3. Execution — learn from others’ mistakes and successes.
Here are the possible benefits of those to the 99 percent of innovation both inside and outside corporations:
1. Eliminate duplication.
2. Capitalize on Connecticut’s smaller scale to simplify the alignment of customers, entrepreneurs, corporations, and investors to reveal and execute the highest and best customer value for new ideas.
3. Reveal opportunities with multilateral impact for existing agencies and government policy to stimulate 99 percent of innovation and increase investment in the new resources created.
4. Feed more deal flow to venture and social venture funds.
That said, the opportunities to connect in Connecticut should be encouraged and we are committed to bringing the business and political worlds together to make that happen.
Katherine Warman Kern is co-founder of Comradity Strategy & Creative Resource Center, a members’ workspace for entrepreneurs and corporations in Stamford. She can be reached at 203-883-9255.