Amid quest to build Silicon Valley-style hub, some Stanley+Techstars startups eagerly call Hartford 'home'

BY Gregory Seay

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
These startup founders, hailing from around the world, participated in the first Stanley+Techstars accelerator program and are now trying to grow their businesses from Hartford.
As downtown Hartford's Stanley+Techstars Additive Manufacturing Accelerator readies by summer to host a second crop of aspiring tech-preneurs, nearly half the program's first 10 "graduates'' have opted to make Connecticut their home base for now.

Ross Lawless, an electrical-electronic engineer from Wicklow, Ireland, and a handful of partners initially came to Hartford last summer, to pursue their vision for a next-generation 3D printer. But once the 10-week accelerator program ended Oct. 7, Lawless and his team chose to remain and pursue a different product strategy.

Now, Lawless, 29, says the 3D printer company he co-founded and runs as CEO — CALT (Computer Aided Life Technology) Dynamics — is close to raising as much as $1 million in private capital to continue development of its first commercial 3D printer capable of producing just-in-time parts.

"We're moving very quickly at commercializing the product," Lawless said.

Hartford is an especially attractive new home, he added, because of its relatively lower commercial overhead and living costs than in Europe or other regions of the U.S.

Like CALT, the other three Stanley+Techstars accelerator graduates — MetalMaker 3D, of Ontario, Canada; Astroprint, of San Diego, Calif.; and Kwambio, of the Ukraine, by way of Brooklyn, N.Y. — "all are in the process of getting situated, figuring out living arrangements," among other settling-in chores, said Claudia Reuter, a Techstars managing partner based in West Hartford. All are now based in Hartford, except for Groton-based Kwambio.

The Stanley+Techstars collaboration welcomed its first class in 2018, taking residence in Stanley Black & Decker's new downtown Hartford advanced manufacturing center in Constitution Plaza.

It was formed through a partnership between Stanley, the New Britain-based hand- and power-tool giant, and Colorado-based TechStars.

As part of the accelerator, startup participants are mentored primarily by Stanley engineers and technologists, with TechStars offering access to venture and other capital. In return, Stanley gets access to new and emerging technologies developed and harvested via the partnership.

For example, Stanley recently seeded MetalMaker 3D with a $500,000 investment to help develop its 3D-printing technology, founder-CEO Eric Sammut said. In return, Stanley will get first crack at any new technology that results.

The accelerator is seen as a major development for downtown Hartford, which is trying to grow its appeal to startups and tech companies as the city competes for talent and new businesses on a global basis.

Some even hold the bold vision of transforming Hartford into a Silicon Valley hub.

Nearby downtown, in the Stilts building on Church Street, sits another accelerator grooming insurance-technology startups — the Hartford InsurTech Hub.

The InsurTech Hub is currently in its second year. At least three startups that participated in its first accelerator that ended in April took residence in the city.

The hub is housed in incubator and co-working space Upward Hartford, which is launching several other initiatives this year that will lead to 40 total startups calling the city home for part of 2019.

In the city's Parkville neighborhood, nonprofit reSET runs perhaps the city's oldest accelerator, which just accepted 16 new startups for its 2019 program and has graduated 98 businesses to date.

One thing the accelerators have in common is their international reach — they've recruited to Hartford companies that span the globe from Canada, Israel and Europe, to as far away as Australia.

That, in some ways, raises the chances these startups may stay in Connecticut, which often gets a bad rap for its expensive and/or unfriendly business climate, but is more affordable than other countries.

The state's position between Boston and New York — and comparatively less expensive cost of living — also provides an advantage.

Sticking around

In its first year, the Stanley+Techstars Accelerator focused on technologies that build 3D objects with materials layering such as plastics, metals and concrete, among others. Technologies included 3D printing, layered manufacturing and additive fabrication and rapid prototyping.

In 2019, the accelerator will consider startups focused on additive manufacturing or environmentally friendly sustainable packaging.

Reuter and Martin Guay, Stanley vice president of business development, say having some of the initial 10 accelerator participants remain in the state is an added bonus to having a relationship with TechStars, which is designed to last as long as the startup.

"For us, we feel this is important because we're seeking to continue with all of our startups,'' Reuter said. "But if they're closer, we can work with them faster.''

Moreover, she said, their presence exposes them to other startup and mentor companies and their executives, fostering a deeper exchange of ideas and technologies, and product-service collaborations.

"Once you're accepted into TechStars, you're in for life,'' Reuter said. "The accelerator portion is over. But they will continue to get support from the Stanley (Technology) Center."

Having recent accelerator alumni stick around benefits enrollees in the program's second year as well, Guay said. They become a resource with whom fresh startups can engage, to accelerate their businesses, and to learn faster.

"Innovation often happens through collaboration," Guay said, "so developing an ecosystem with additional perspectives and startups at varying levels of maturity helps foster an innovative environment for the Hartford region."

"We are also keen,'' he said, "to enable an advanced-manufacturing ecosystem in metro Hartford. Retaining entrepreneurs and talent in the area will attract more talent, risk capital, and ecosystem development."

CT's appeal

Access is what Lawless says convinced him and his partners to remain in Connecticut. After residing downtown for 2 months, the CALT co-founder said he found an affordable place to live in West Hartford. A relatively short commute into downtown Hartford was the main appeal.

Since MetalMaker's arrival in Hartford in mid-July last year to participate in the Stanley+Techstars programs, Sammut said " … we have realized the value of this city as a base of operations for our startup."

Sammut subsequently chose to stay and make Hartford MetalMaker's headquarters because, he said, the city is at the heart of this state's manufacturing sector and strategically situated between New York and Boston.

Also, he said, "Hartford rents are more affordable than other large cities and we don't have to spend hours each day in traffic. It is ideal for an early stage manufacturing startup that needs to run lean while maintaining ties to the U.S. market."

AstroPrint founder-CEO Drew Taylor admits "we hadn't thought much about being in the Hartford area'' prior to enrolling in the Stanley+Techstars accelerator program.

But once here, Taylor, 45, who calls San Diego, Calif., home despite regularly traveling the globe, says "it became apparent this was the place to be.''

His company is developing a cloud-based operating software he and his team devised to run multiple 3D printers at once.

Not only did AstroPrint succeed in landing Stanley as a client, but his company's presence amid so many other prospective New England manufacturing customers made it imperative the company stay in Hartford, Taylor said.

He said the 12- to 18 months it takes to cultivate and seal a contract makes not having to travel far an advantage. AstroPrint claims about 80,000 customers worldwide.

He said AstroPrint is eager to hire by summer a couple of local salespeople to his global staff of 10. Meantime, Taylor is homing in on the city's Parkville neighborhood as his nesting place, citing the neighborhood's "gritty feel'' and its confluence of startup entrepreneurs.