Move Over, Yale! New Haven's Tech Scene Is In A League Of Its Own

Slate Ballard, cofounder of the coworking space The Grove, and Derek Koch, CEO of the product-development firm Independent Software, share five things you need to know about starting a business in New Haven, Connecticut.

New Haven is a modest town perpetually in the shadow of greater things—most notably Yale University and the two metropoli it’s sandwiched between, New York and Boston. What’s lesser known about New Haven is that is has long been a hotbed of startup activity: Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin here, as well as interchangeable parts for guns, sparking a small arms-manufacturing industry that encompassed Winchesters and Colt revolvers. (The city took on an unpleasantly different association with guns when a famous Black Panthers murder in 1970 put New Haven on the international map.)

Today New Haven still offers surprisingly rich opportunities for entrepreneurs. Home to biotech and financial giants like Bristol Myers Squibb, Covidien, GE, and, United Technologies, New Haven counts Kayak, Priceline, and SeeClickFix among its homegrown startups. (SeeClickFix helps governments and citizens act on non-emergency fixes reported on 311 hotlines.) Other recent IPOs include an $88 million exit in 2011 for Tangoe, a telecom expense management solution, and $100 milllion in 2010 for HigherOne, a service facilitating student-loan payments.

We asked Slate Ballard and Derek Koch to share five things budding entrepreneurs should know about New Haven. Ballard is cofounder with Ken Janke of the coworking space The Grove, and Koch is founder and CEO of Independent Software, a prototyping and product-development firm for technology projects.

New Haven has a solid support system for burgeoning businesses.

Koch collaborates with Slate and others on New Haven’s chapter of Startup Weekend, a national event challenging would-be entrepreneurs to whip their project into shape in just 54 hours. Those who can’t get enough pressure-cooker incubating can participate in Launch Haven, a monthly event co-sponsored with The Grove. Their “cram sessions” tap the room’s collective brainpower in lightning rounds that clarify your value proposition, shore up your weaker points, and ensure you fully milk your idea’s potential.

New Haven Economic Development Corporation (EDC) steps into the breach to support entrepreneurs ready for a formal business plan and starter financing. C-Tech and TechStart, both state-sponsored accelerators, shepherd young businesses from their seed-financing round toward maturity—at which point VC firms and investment bankers in Greenwich and elsewhere infiltrate to take mature businesses to a successful exit.

Do-gooders welcome.

“New Haven is home to a plethora of nonprofits—there’s a rise in social entrepreneurship here that the Grove is very invested in,” Ballard says. He cites an upcoming bill in the state general assembly to promote social-enterprise businesses in Connecticut. As a case in point, Slate offers YouRenew, a refurbisher of used cell phones and one of “America’s Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs” in 2011 according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Founder Robert Casey is a “product of Yale, and now he’s decided to stick around,” Ballard says.

Yale isn’t the only game in town.

Ballard and Koch are quick to praise Yale’s involvement in the New Haven business scene—but just as quick to downplay its 800-pound-gorilla status. “Yale is well-known everywhere in the world; New Haven is not,” Ballard says. “That said, there is life outside of Yale here.” Koch’s take is more philosophical: “Yale is obviously a huge brand, but they’re invested in New Haven becoming a vibrant city in its own right. I think of New Haven business as an interesting patchwork quilt. Yale contributes a big piece, but it doesn’t dominate as much as you might think.” New Haven sits in enviable proximity to the entire New England brain trust, with top-tier research facilities under an hour away in every direction.

Stock up on Metro-North and Amtrak tickets.

New Haven’s proximity to New York and Boston offers entrepreneurs a big advantage. “In the middle of the Northeast Corridor, you can get so much done just by jumping on the train,” Koch says. “Go hit your major customers, make a pitch in person, collaborate with someone else in the Northeast—it’s an incredible hidden asset for the city.” But be prepared for a long, expensive commute: A round-trip to New York City can easily involve 4 to 5 hours of travel time, only part of which can be spent productively. Boston is even longer and, because it's Amtrak, costs as much as a plane ticket.

New Haveners work hard and play easy.

"Lots of outsiders think Connecticut is all yachts and I-bankers on the eastern side, and here in central CT you have crime," Koch says. "That impression is just wrong." Well, not entirely: Last year, New Haven was ranked the fourth most dangerous city in the United States. It's also deeply segregated. Still, New Haven has much to offer residents in the way of quality of life that other, larger northern cities do not, such as access to secluded Long Island beaches. “The work-life balance here is great,” Ballard says. “I bike to work almost every day in 10 minutes.” Punctuate that commute with a quick beer in the iconic Anchor Bar on the historic New Haven Green, and you have the recipe for an ideal work-hard-play-easy locale.

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[Image: Flickr user C_Ambler]

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4 Comments

  • SarahLord

    Correction: The commute from New Haven to New York
    (Grand Central) is 2 hours on Metro North. It is far more
    affordable than AmTrack. And it's reliable.
    This comment was hell to execute on a
    mobile device, by the way.

  • RK

    I've been saying for a while that New Haven is fertile ground for start-ups. 

    It has an incredible access to talent (both from lower FFC, the Hartford area, and the many colleges within miles), an entrepreneurial vibe, great quality of life (the area has much less traffic and lower cost of living than NYC/Boston), and to top it off it's a great city with an amazing food scene, bars, culture, etc. 

  • Lee Cruz

    Great article, on target about everything in New Haven except the violence ranking. As an employee of the local Community Foundation I work closely with people addressing this issue. New Haven has problems but being near the top of the list of most violent cities in the U.S is not one of them. Playing off a famous quote -- numbers do not lie, people just don't know how to interpret statistical data". For an accurate interpretation of the data read "New Haven crime real, danger ranking is not" 
    http://www.nhregister.com/arti... said The Grove is a great place where for profit and nonprofit business intersection for the common economic and social good of Greater New Haven.