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A commitment to innovation


Business leaders and academics say it’s time for Fairfield County to rely on the innovators and entrepreneurs living within its borders rather than on ideas originating outside the state.

Representatives from the University of Connecticut and the Business Council of Fairfield County participated in an Oct. 25 panel discussion at the Stamford Learning Accelerator that highlighted the need for businesses and government to provide an infrastructure to accommodate innovation in Fairfield County.

As much asFairfieldCountyidentifies withConnecticutand New England, the area is more accurately a reflection ofNew York’s economy, said Chris Bruhl, president and CEO of the Business Council.

Citing Pepperidge Farm, Pitney Bowes, Sikorsky and Bridgewater Associates as innovative companies that have developed in Fairfield County, Bruhl said recent trends point to economic growth that is being fueled by companies relocating to Fairfield County from outside the state.

“It’s been the outward growth of New York, rather than the indigenous growth within,” Bruhl said, and there’s a need to build an infrastructure for entrepreneurs to both start and speed up the development of new businesses.

Earlier Oct. 25, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy launchedConnecticut’s Innovation Ecosystem initiative, which will be led by the quasi governmental authority Connecticut Innovations.

Bruhl said both the Business Council and UConn will participate as innovation hubs inStamfordandStorrs, respectively, providing financial, technical, professional and mentoring resources.

Adding to the Innovation Ecosystem initiative, Bruhl said there are a number of other projects that could be pooled together to create an effective infrastructure for Fairfield County.

Among them, Bruhl said more than 30 firms of lawyers, accountants, bankers, brokers and consultants, all specializing in growing companies, have formed the Connecticut Growth Network, which recently opened a “cell” in Stamford. In addition, seven other development entities have opened offices in Stamford, including the Center for Growth Resources, Connecticut Technology Council and Community Economic Development Fund.

Additionally, UConn recently applied to the U.S. Small Business Administration to form a Small Business Development Center and distribute up to $2.2 million annually in low-interest loans.

Outside of these efforts, Bruhl said the Business Council has also committed to annually creating 20 high-growth companies out of local startups. During the process, Bruhl said he expects the Business Council will serve more than 100 companies. The Business Council also plans to place a total of 10 interns within the high-performing companies to provide further development opportunities.

“We want to continue to build out the infrastructure that is required for entrepreneurs,” Bruhl said. “We don’t have these services and structures. We’re still a desert. We’re still in that building stage.”

Panelists at the Oct. 25 event agreed a major step in helping to promote innovation would involve a partnership between UConn and the business community to prepare future generations for employment.

Lincoln Millstein, executive vice president of Hearst Corp. and a 1977 UConn graduate, expressed his frustration over having to hireNew York Cityresidents to fill high-techConnecticutjobs.

“No one is qualified inConnecticut,” Millstein said.

Seeking to address the issue, Millstein and Tim Hunter, who is heading up UConn’s new Digital Media Center, have collaborated on the design of the school’s program, which aims to teach students how to use digital media as a tool for analysis and communication for future job openings in fields as diverse as engineering and social work.

UConn also worked with various digital media industry experts as it prepared to launch the center. In the future, Hunter said hopes companies like Hearst will be able to hire UConn graduates from the program.

“I’m sincere when I say business drives our decisions,” Hunter said.

Panelist Joe Parson, a manager at Bridgewater Associates, highlighted the value of partnerships between universities and the private sector, saying students and their ideas can be an important resource for all businesses.

“They’re not traditional thinkers; students are students,” Parson said. “And people exploring interesting problems in a university environment, they’re going to take risks. That’s what brought the discussions to a new level.”

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