Hartford’s Fortune - The Capital City of Connecticut’s Ongoing Journey to Becoming a Tech Hub
Boston is a city with multiple features that make it ideal for tech entrepreneurs. The city contains an abundance of talent from the schools in the area, the investment community is active in what the early-stage and established tech companies are doing, and the variety of incubators and accelerators are helping startups thrive.
What if there was another New England capital city that features many of those same features and qualities as Boston? Take a trip a few hours below the Hub, and you will arrive in Hartford, Connecticut, where you may realize that there is an entrepreneurial tech scene that is not only scaling but prospering.
After all, why can’t a city with access to talent from schools such as Yale, UConn, University of New Haven, (among other colleges) become a significant tech scene itself?
The city’s most daunting challenge is that it still hasn’t reached the audience it has the potential to do so, but that can be chopped up to the tech scene’s ongoing growth. A perfect example of this comes with the fact that two of the city's accelerators are under five years old; reSET is just under five years old, and Hartford InsurTech Hub was only formed last year.
In 2010, the entrepreneurial tech community decided to hold an open house in downtown Hartford to drum up some interest.
“The big theme of that meeting was, ‘you don’t hear a lot about Connecticut entrepreneurship,’” said current reSET Managing Director Ojala Naeem, who was in attendance. “At the time, we didn’t have a strong community, and everyone wanted to find a way to bring up and foster the entrepreneur community we currently had.”
Much to the city’s surprise, more than 200 people showed up, and from there, the concept of creating a centralized area for these early-stage companies to come together was slowly being charted out.
For a while, it was difficult for the startups already in the location who didn’t have any consolidated place in the city for entrepreneurs to meet up, nor a place for potential investors to connect with them. This was all despite the fact that there is innovation going on, as well as an abundance of venture capital firms.
“I don’t think that there’s a place that paints this much of a whole package,” said Asarasi Founder and CEO Adam Lazar, who has lived in and around the city for most of his entrepreneurial career. “If you’re a startup, you have more access to venture capital and offices than you could imagine not only in Hartford but across the state. It’s small but friendly, and it can foster as much innovation as a large city.”
Lazar’s company utilizes technology to ferment and filter water from maple trees, and is one of the few organic bottled water distributors in the country. The company’s products have caught the attention of other accelerators across the country, including MassChallenge (where Asarasi was a finalist in 2016), but maintains a strong presence in Hartford. He is not the only entrepreneur who has favorable opinions on how the city's tech sector can grow.
“Hartford still faces challenges in its tech space,” said SKYWIREme Founder Jeremy Smith. “One challenge is finding a target market, and also finding a grassroots method of gaining interest among people. However, an accelerator like reSET is having a positive impact. Hartford has tremendous potential, and an opportunity to keep growing.”
Smith, like Lazar, is a lifelong resident of Connecticut, and his company is designed to help non-profit organizations to connect through cloud text and voice messaging. Through his time at reSET, he was able to onboard new clients for his company’s product.
Through these recent developments, several people have noticed technological trends in the city.
“I think the beauty of the tech scene in Hartford lies in its diversity,” said Naeem. “We see a lot of insurance and science-related technology companies coming out, but there is also a lot of tech being implemented to help out other industries. I personally see a lot of development with IoT [Internet of things].”
“There’s a lot more going on in Hartford than people realize. I see a lot of FinTech, AI and machine learning, and of course insurtech,” Smith said. “It has been an interesting evolution over the past few years.”
Let’s talk about some accelerators and startups
Hartford InsurTech Hub
One of Hartford’s nicknames is ‘The Insurance Capital of the World.’ So, it may not come as a surprise that the city contains quite a few insurtech companies looking to assist (or disrupt) an industry that may still be using archaic technology.
The Hartford Insurtech Hub was founded in September of 2017, after Connecticut state legislation passed another economic growth bill for various programs. The Hartford Insurtech Hub runs a new accelerator powered by Startupbootcamp, which is based in London, England.
“Hartford has a lot of pillars for economic growth. Startupbootcamp chose to focus on InsurTech because there is a rich history of insurance in the city,” said Hartford InsurTech Hub Program Director Erika Bothma. “Some of the largest insurers in the United States are located right here.”
Similar to many other accelerators, Hartford InsurTech Hub will bring in tech veterans, but they also involved in the ecosystem those who have worked in the insurance industry to help coach and mentor the companies in the cohort.
And those who have long-running insurance careers, they will be more than happy to see upstart companies are looking to assist and disrupt the industry.
“The companies come from all over the world, and the main theme among them is that they are all attacking pain points,” Bothma said.
For example, one of the startups, StaTwig, is utilizing the blockchain technology to manage supply chains. Another one is SecureHome, which has developed a detection system that uses machine learning algorithms to see how safe a home is, and ViewSpection assists those working in the home insurance industry will be able to price value a property.
“Insurtech doesn’t have a clear hub in the United States, and having an accelerator like Hartford InsurTech Hub could help reach that audience,” Bothma said. “There is also an incentive for startups from the state government for the companies to stay in the area and help it grow and prosper.”
Hartford InsurTech Hub also hosts InsurTech hackathons and they welcome students from UConn and other colleges in the area attend.
“It’s a great chance to network,” said Scout and Research Analyst Leland Holcomb, who has been working hard building out this part of the InsurTech Hub. “We want to set up opportunities for students of all ages, so we’ve even been reaching out to high schools and universities to try and engage development at a young age. There’s lots of interest in Hartford and our program. It’s a lot, but it’s great.”
reSET became an accelerator in 2013, but the organization started back in 2007 as a non-profit focusing on social entrepreneurship.
Over the following years and through help from state legislation (which included bills being passed to encourage economic growth in the city), as well as funding from The Walker Group (a prominent IT and digital marketing services firm), CTNext (another accelerator based in the suburbs of Hartford), The Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, and MetroHartford Alliance, reSET became a reality. The accelerator takes in startups that cover a wide array of industries and remains inclusive when it comes to accepting companies.
One of reSET’s more well-known features is their collaborations with various colleges in the area. Naeem went into detail on how their Summer Internship Program takes in students from UConn, University of Hartford, Wesleyan, and Trinity College, as well as students from across the country. Students partake in the program and get a chance to learn and network with other startups in the area.
Asarasi and SKYWIREme are two companies that have graduated or are partaking in the cohort at reSET. I had a chance to speak with a few more startups, each of them bringing something new to their respective industry.
Founded by UConn graduate Andrew Ginzberg, Loki is a video sharing platform exclusively for smartphones. Ginzberg’s idea is to have college students and citizen journalists become more active in events that are currently happening and need urgent attention.
"The city has been making great efforts to create a tech hub. reSET has been great for us because it's been giving a chance for our team to come together," Ginzberg said. “I'd like to see a huge cultural shift in technology in the area. I'm interested in looking to see what companies are going to be made relevant. However, it's hard to see where it's going to go. Connecticut has a lot to offer, and needs to take advantage of what they have.”
The idea for Movia Robotics came from Gifford's long-term robotics research at UConn, and from his wife's experience teaching children with autism. During their time at the accelerator, Gifford hired additional team members, and they had access to technology to assist in the growth and development of their software.
Initially based in Boston, tripBuddy Founder and CEO Tawheed Abdul-Raheem saw reSET as a chance for exposure. His company has developed a ridesharing app where users aren’t calling for a cab but asking residents in their neighborhood to carpool with them.
“Their tech scene is less vibrant, but it is up-and-coming, and reSET is willing to help those companies coming through,” Abdul-Raheem said.
New England (Tech)’s Rising Star
The efforts of the state government and from the various accelerators in Hartford have allowed it to gain a much higher presence in the tech world, but there is still much more room to thrive. More than several startups could help the insurance companies adopt new technology and drive that sector forward. There are also a few that are doing something unique compared to other industries.
Is Hartford on it’s way to becoming a remarkable player in the tech industry?
"Hartford has tremendous potential and an opportunity to grow as more startups come down here," said Smith. "As long as the state is continuing to execute strategies for growth, then there are opportunities for careers and entrepreneurship."
“It’s been hard to grow over the past five years, but we think we’re well on our way to become a hub,” Naeem said.