By Alexander Soule
On a June day in 2012, when a baking sun had temperatures hovering near 100 degrees in downtown Stamford, startup guru Bob Dorf rolled up his sleeves to engage his audience with a combination lecture and pep talk, some 60 people crowding a room at the Stamford Innovation Center.
Taking in the crowd in the sweltering room, Peter Propp knew the formula he was cooking up alongside Barry Schwimmer and other founders of the Stamford Innovation Center was going to work.
“People were there the whole time,” recalled Propp, the center’s chief marketing officer. “I was thinking, if they were going to sit through something like this, then we actually had something. I mean, we had cold beer in the back of the room, but it was uncomfortable to sit down — it was unpleasant.”
From its launch more than three years ago as a business accelerator for entrepreneurs, the Stamford Innovation Center today has turned out to be much more — a crossroads in downtown Stamford to engage not just startups and their mentors, but all manner of businesspeople interested in the city’s growth.
From a couple of events a month in the early going, the center today maintains a bustling schedule heading into perhaps the signature event on its annual lineup, the Stamford Startup Weekend business plan competition scheduled this year for April 10-12 2015.
If the startup event draws people from throughout the Northeast, it is the ongoing workshops held at the Stamford Innovation Center that have become the biggest contributing factor to the city’s emerging vitality for innovation and entrepreneurship.
Formerly a manager with IBM, Propp was starting to get involved in the strategy and marketing of the center early in the summer of 2012 while running a regional meetup group.
“We were trying to figure out how to go to market,” Propp said. “So what I thought of doing was events. It would be a place where every meetup wants to be, where every business school alumni group wants to be.”
“We always felt that if we made people want to be here, for a variety of programs, that we could grow the number of people who know about us,” he added. “So we have really matured that process.”
Time to catch up
In what some considered a startling conclusion, the Kauffman Foundation in 2013 determined that in the decade between 1990 and 2010, lower Fairfield County suffered the second steepest drop in high-tech startup density of mid-sized metropolitan areas nationally. The largest decline was in New Haven, which likewise has embraced an entrepreneurship incubator in its midst called The Grove.
Last April, the Kauffman Foundation ranked Connecticut 23rd among the 50 states for entrepreneurship, estimating that there are 28 entrepreneurs for every 10,000 people here. If far from the startup instincts demonstrated in California — 40 people in every 10,000 there are entrepreneurs — Connecticut was about on par with New York and Massachusetts.
In October 2012, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy launched Connecticut’s Innovation Ecosystem, creating central hubs for entrepreneurship throughout the state, including at the Stamford Innovation Center. The state would form an organization called CTNext to act as a facilitator online and behind the scenes for innovators seeking backers to give them a boost.
“It will take some time to catch up,” Malloy said at the time. “But we’re back in the game.”
As measured by venture capital dollars, Malloy’s hometown of Stamford still has some catching up to do, with 11 venture capital deals by Stamford companies in 2014 totaling $37.8 million, down from 18 deals for $48.4 million the year before.
But if counted by the sheer number and diversity of events offered up the Stamford Innovation System, the ecosystem is thriving.
In February alone — typically not the busiest month on the event calendar — the Stamford Innovation Center helped organize 15 events across four weeks; last October, it crammed 20 events into the month.
By contrast, the Business Council of Fairfield County and the Stamford Chamber of Commerce combined for 10 events in February, albeit some of those confabs drawing far larger crowds from the big bases of membership on which those two organizations can draw.
In the diversity of programming it offers, the closest proxy to the Stamford Innovation Center may be SCORE Fairfield County, which has 11 events on its March schedule. But SCORE borrows space for its events throughout lower Fairfield County, and so does not offer the sense of community that a single site can offer like the Stamford Innovation Center.
Still, the center does not hold a monopoly on the innovation event space. When the founders of the “maker space” organization Rippowam Labs went looking for a dedicated facility, they gave the Stamford Innovation Center scant thought, instead settling on a small commercial space on Summer Street just a few blocks away.
The center’s showcase event remains Stamford Startup Weekend, won last year by Pop.Up Shoppees, created by Bruno Chima of Creating Economic Opportunities in Storrs and Walid Namane and Cyril Senu, both now with Sikorsky Aircraft. The trio’s team won with a plan to recycle used shipping containers into pop-up store fronts.
If an intriguing idea, it serves just as well as well as an analogy for a facility like the Stamford Innovation Center, with its original mission to serve as an incubator for startup businesses, only adding the ongoing slate of events at a later date. On a regular basis, the center offers up entrepreneurs who have spent time building their companies within its walls to share their experiences, in most cases candidly detailing their failures and successes along the way.
Schwimmer thinks back to the first Stamford Startup Weekend held in 2012, and recalls marveling at the some 150 people that attended on the Friday pitch night where contestants showcase their ideas and recruit team members for the weekend.
“This had never been done in Fairfield County before and I remember sitting there and going, `Wow, people are interested in this,’ ” Schwimmer said. “People are now really looking at this place and they are saying … `There’s interesting people there. There’s things going on and there’s companies that are being created … and strong partnerships that are being formed.’ ”
With a 10-year lease in hand, the Stamford Innovation Center has plenty of time to figure out how it will fit into Stamford’s business scene going forward, and by extension, Connecticut’s.
“What I really want is the longest runway possible so that people know we’re going to be around,” Propp said. “We feel very comfortable we are going to be around for quite a while … The comfort level that 20 or 30 years (from now) we could be doing this, interesting stuff like this and the number of jobs we would produce doing this … The companies that would come through here and build up and bust out, and the impact on the region? I think it would be phenomenal.”