Trinity among partners awarded portion of $30 million Innovation Places grant

By Mary Howard

Imagine a Hartford where people are solving big problems and inventing cutting-edge technologies; where residents, students, and visitors meet on sidewalks and in cafés to share ideas; where thriving businesses fill once-empty storefronts; and where art and music events abound.

This is a vision President Joanne Berger-Sweeney has articulated since her arrival in 2014. “The capital city’s small size creates an environment for stakeholders — Trinity College chief among them — to make a big impact on the health and vitality of Hartford’s neighborhoods, schools, and economy,” she says. Thanks to a grant from CTNext, a state-funded program to boost economic growth and innovation, Trinity’s faculty, staff, and students will be part of making this vision a reality.

The College is a key partner of the Hartford/East Hartford Innovation Places Planning Team, one of four groups selected on June 6 to receive a share of $30 million in state funding. In fiscal year 2018, the team will receive up to $2 million in implementation grant funds to begin the process. This will be the first of up to five years of renewable funding.

The grant is part of a statewide Innovation Places competition run by CTNext, a subsidiary of Connecticut Innovations, the state’s venture capital firm. Competition was fierce among a dozen communities across the state, and the announcement ended an eight-month planning process that began last summer and included a site visit and presentation to a panel of experts from the business and entrepreneurial worlds. Other winners are New Haven, New London-Groton, and Stamford.

What does this mean for Trinity?

For starters, the team has plans to develop a thriving live/learn/work destination in the area around Trinity and Hartford Hospital. A retail assessment matching program will connect entrepreneurs and small businesses with available space and the financial support to create new ventures. And small business grants will allow local restaurants and retailers to improve the quality and attractiveness of their physical spaces.

“We envision a hub of activity in a walkable area,” says team member Amy Brough, Trinity’s director of institutional support. “Imagine a student leaving her dorm room to walk to an internship at Hartford HealthCare and then a meeting at the public library.”

Placemaking — building on the community’s assets to create public spaces that promote residents’ health, happiness, and well-being — is a focus of the initiative. “The health and vibrancy of the neighborhood has direct impacts on the experiences that faculty, staff, and students have at Trinity,” says team member Jason Rojas M’12, who is chief of staff to Berger-Sweeney and the College’s director of community relations. “We want our entire campus community to take advantage of the incredible resources that our neighborhood has to offer.”

The cornerstones of this initiative are connections, destinations, and opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs, says team member Jamie Calabrese Brätt ’05, the City of Hartford’s director of planning & economic development. “In the Trinity area in the near term, you’ll see more activations, such as pop-up food truck events and retail.”

The area around Trinity and Hartford Hospital will be deemed a medical technology innovation (“MedTech”) district. Outside the Innovation Places grant, Trinity and the hospital have formal partnerships in neuroscience research and through the College’s Health Fellows Program, among other initiatives.

“Trinity and Hartford HealthCare’s providers, especially Hartford Hospital and Institute of Living, have long-standing partnerships, and Innovation Places will build upon those existing relationships to increase engagement between our institutions and our faculty, staff, and students,” says Berger-Sweeney.

Plans for this MedTech district include establishing a biomedical innovation institute to fast-track new product and technology development and commercialization. A digital health technology program will help attract and support companies specializing in health care analytics, biomedical informatics, and other emerging health care fields, creating a hub of medical technology companies in the area.

“The continued evolution of the MedTech sector strengthens the region’s push for industry-changing innovation,” says Elliot Joseph, chief executive officer of Hartford HealthCare. “It will equip both institutions with differentiating capabilities to help lead future industry disruptors in the domains of biomedical engineering, digital health, Internet of things, and advanced analytics.”

The MedTech district is one of three zones of innovation in the Hartford/East Hartford plan. The InsurTech hub will work to bring next-generation insurance companies to Downtown Hartford, and an aerospace/advanced manufacturing hub will aim to help local manufacturers and entrepreneurs increase innovation within the aerospace industry, particularly in East Hartford.

The area already was one of the region’s most robust economic centers because of its strong presence in the insurance, health care, aerospace, and advanced manufacturing industries, and the new plan builds on that. “We are excited to see the impressive leadership team bring together its existing resources and assets, many of which have been underutilized to this point, and take the Hartford/East Hartford communities to the next level,” says Glendowlyn Thames, executive director of CTNext. 

By attracting entrepreneurs and industry to the area, more cutting-edge research, internship, and job opportunities will exist for Trinity students and graduates. “If a student’s first internship is in Boston or New York, that’s where they are headed after they graduate,” says Berger-Sweeney. “We want to create opportunities and the relative conditions that encourage students to stay in Connecticut, in general, and Hartford, in particular.”

By increasing jobs and internships, the planning team hopes to retain more talented college graduates. This is a goal shared by the Connecticut Higher Education Innovation & Entrepreneurship Working Group, a consortium of presidents of higher education institutions in Connecticut that is co-chaired by Berger-Sweeney. The group worked on a timetable parallel to that of the Innovation Places planning team to develop a plan to create a statewide, higher education entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Retaining college graduates in the city also will address the needs of the region’s employers, large and small, says Rojas. “Our goals are focused on attracting and growing technology-based businesses as well as developing and retaining talent who are graduating from Trinity and our partner institutions,” he adds. Workforce development through partnerships and programs for high school and college students — like Trinity’s robotics competition — also will help fuel the pipeline of skilled workers and entrepreneurs.

The Hartford/East Hartford Innovation Places Implementation Team comprises leaders from more than 20 organizations — including Trinity, the University of Connecticut, the University of Hartford, Hartford HealthCare, and insurance companies including Travelers, The Hartford, and Cigna — along with several entrepreneurs. Each of these community stakeholders will play a role in executing the team’s strategy and in making Hartford and East Hartford visible centers of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Brough and Rojas — along with planning team members Gerald Gunderson, Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of American Business and Economic Enterprise, and Ellen Hart, assistant director of institutional support — are ready to roll up their sleeves to support Trinity’s role in implementation. The next steps will target infrastructure, including putting together a board of directors and hiring a manager to assist team director Michelle Cote, managing director of the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UConn.

“We have an incredible opportunity to move Hartford forward by building on the city’s and the region’s economic engines,” says Rojas. “Continued collaboration and active communications will be key to moving into this next phase.”

While there are challenges in working with such a diverse group of organizations, each with its own interests, Rojas says, the process of creating the plan broke down silos and built relationships. “Ultimately this is about what is best for the city.”

For more about the Innovation Places grant, please visit https://ctnext.com/innovation-places/