By Betty Wong and Kaitlyn Krasselt
When Tom Fiorita made the decision to locate his tech startup, Point Pickup Technologies, in Greenwich, he hoped it would set a precedent for other tech companies considering the Gold Coast for their home base.
“This area of the country is starting to be a start-up tech area,” Fiorita said at the time, envisioning an East Coast equivalent to Silicon Valley.
While his vision may not become a reality until far into the future, Connecticut is making strides — albeit small ones — in growing its tech sector.
According to the 2016 Cyberstates report from CompTIA, which provides an in-depth look at the U.S. technology job market in a state-by-state comparison, Connecticut ranks 26th in the country with just over 73,000 workers in the field.
While the state’s overall rank remains unchanged, Connecticut added almost 900 tech-related jobs in 2015, a number that’s expected to continue growing this year.
Much of that growth has been in Fairfield County, with Danbury pegged as one of the top 10 small cities in the country for web developers. Stamford and Norwalk have welcomed several tech-based companies, and with Point Pickup’s success, even Greenwich is getting in on the tech action.
Seeding and support from Connecticut Innovations — the state’s quasi-public venture capital and lending arm that fosters startups and early-stage companies — and CTNext have helped a technology corridor blossom in the county. Signs of southwestern Connecticut tech investment include the Silicon Harbor project on the Stamford waterfront, Stamford Innovation Center, the Danbury Hackerspace @ the Innovation Center in Danbury, University of Bridgeport’s CTech IncUBator, Bridgeport Innovation Center and Fairfield University’s business incubator. While the local tech scene won’t soon mirror Silicon Valley, New York or Boston, a pipeline of talent has been laid.
“Over the past few years, we have seen a tremendous amount of growth in Fairfield County and specifically Stamford,” said Glendowlyn Thames, director of Rocky Hill-based Small Business Innovation and CTNext. “Stamford has reinvented itself as a tech hub and a worthy alternative to New York City. We are seeing the private market increase the level of investment in the startup and entrepreneurial community, and we expect that this will continue in the future.”
Barry Schwimmer, a founder and managing partner of Stamford Innovation Center, described Fairfield County’s technology scene as “growing. We really need to develop more of a tech scene and we at the Innovation Center run a lot of programs. There has been significant growth in the past three years, but we still need to meet the demands for developers.”
Bruce Carlson, president and CEO of East Hartford-based Connecticut Technology Council, which represents about 2,000 companies in the software, advanced manufacturing and other industries, agreed that Fairfield County’s nascent tech scene needs faster development.
“There’s a pipeline for certain companies, but not across the board,” Carlson said. “The programs in place are for developing talent three to five years out, but we need to meet the needs of 2016.”
He cited high demand for software developers, engineers for manufacturing and computer science expertise for bioscience companies.
Carlson said Stamford and South Norwalk are good hubs to attract millennials for work and play with a vibrant city life, but noted Fairfield County’s high cost of living. To bolster the tech pipeline, he urged more research collaboration between companies and universities, and cooperation to develop more ready-to-hire students.
Schwimmer said about 100 people regularly work at the Stamford Innovation Center for about 25 tech-related companies. While the rent is competitive, the main draw is “to be part of the community and take advantage of the programming and mentoring. We encourage the sharing of ideas and a tenet is to serve as a bridge between small and big companies.”
As for the benefits of Fairfield County’s technology scene, Schwimmer pointed to the “community, educational capital, (regular) capital, proximity to New York and Boston economies and a highly trained work force.”
Hugh Seaton founded Stamford Hackathon to build the southern Connecticut technology community. About 60 people attended last year’s inaugural Stamford Hackathon and more than 125 signed up for this year’s February event, Seaton said. The Stamford native said Hackathons train people to run through problems quickly.
Seaton said he tried to emulate in Fairfield County some techniques that helped develop New Haven into a vibrant technology scene including regular events to draw developers, programmers and engineers. Seaton said university partnerships with businesses, government cooperation and corporate sponsors to help not just with funds but also staff expertise are key to nurturing Fairfield County’s technology corridor. But what Seaton saw as essential was “velocity” — the power to pull people from the comfort of their home couches and drive to a central place to meet with others.
Schwimmer is optimistic that tech entrepreneurs can do well in Fairfield County.
“Because of the radical changes in technology, it is easier and cheaper to start a business than any point I can remember. It’s expensive to scale but in terms of trying and starting, it’s never been easier. There are a lot of assets. If we can be a catalyst, we can do a lot of good here.”