July 10, 2017

Upward Hartford is ground zero for city's fledgling entrepreneurial ecosystem

HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns
HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns
Upward Hartford's Shana Schlossberg wants her new downtown space to be a place where startups mix with major companies.
HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns
Stacey Brown, founder of InsurTech Hartford and a 15-year IT veteran, sees Hartford as an ideal place to grow the startup community around insurance technology.
HBJ PHOTOs | John Stearns
Upward Hartford’s coworking space (left) is designed to promote mingling and networking and features shared desks, couches and a large video screen for presentations or even movies. (Top right) Upward Hartford’s Nadiya Anderson and Chris Dudanowicz shoot a round of pool. (Bottom right) Upward Hartford brings in food trucks and live music.

Companies test Upward Hartford

Calling Hartford home

Thomas Howe, chief technology officer of Ten Digit Communications, which text-enables business phones for text messaging, is happy to call Upward Harford home. Ten Digit customers include large enterprises with numerous contact centers and agents, so Hartford, home to industries like insurance, health care and government, is attractive.

"For us to have a place to come in Hartford, to start our business, to get introductions into the right people in the city has been super valuable to us," Howe said.

Upward Hartford is appealing for its location — in Hartford, he said.

"We're believers in the city," Howe said. "We believe that this is a real opportunity waiting to happen."

GlobeKeeper in search of a headquarters

Dan Peleg, founder and CEO of GlobeKeeper, described as a secure collaboration platform for security personnel that uses military-grade security and encryption for civilian communication devices, also has benefited from shared work environments at coworking spaces in Tel Aviv, California and Georgia. Such spaces enhance focus and connections, he said, anticipating two or three staffers in Upward Hartford later this year.

Hartford is attractive for its proximity to major Northeast markets and customers there, he said. Customers include law enforcement and private security personnel in areas such as executive protection and campus security. Users can transmit live videos, share files and text messages and pictures in real time in a secure environment on standard smartphones and tablets.

GlobeKeeper's R&D will remain in Tel Aviv, but Peleg said corporate headquarters will be in the U.S., possibly Hartford.

Mingling in Upward Hartford's expansive coworking, networking and incubator space downtown during a recent open house, Farmington angel investor and serial entrepreneur/inventor Eric Knight praised the new organization's mix of ingredients.

"The integration of companies and startups, that's the magic elixir," Knight said of Upward Hartford's occupants. "Having startups with fresh ideas working side by side in the same physical space as the large corporations, that's what's successful — I think that's the major advantage."

Upward Hartford, a space for startups and entrepreneurs designed to fuel technological innovation and creativity and lead to new jobs and energy in the region, is officially open on the transformed mezzanine of 20 Church St., the Stilts Building. Rebranded from Innovate Hartford, the incubator/accelerator/ecosystem includes open passage to the floor above for 27,453 square feet of distinctive space designed to get occupants mingling, creative juices flowing, business relationships sprouting and companies growing.

The upper floor, with traditional offices and conference rooms and nontraditional spaces like a meditation room, is targeted for completion July 15, but the energy and vision of New York-based founder and CEO Shana Schlossberg is already apparent on the main floor. That's where representatives of everything from startups to established companies can work at large shared desks, relax on couches, shoot pool, take a yoga class or perhaps watch a movie or presentation on a massive video board while snacking on popcorn from a popcorn cart. Nonmembers of Upward Hartford also can attend workshops, yoga and other events for a fee.

A new Upward Hartford app allows people to check event schedules, reserve conference rooms and more.

A recent Friday afternoon featured two live bands organized by Upward Hartford in the Stilts plaza at Church and Main streets and food trucks to serve Stilts workers and others. They're all part of the energy Schlossberg is trying to create in a city she sees as ripe for an innovation explosion fueled, in part, by local and out-of-state investors who share her vision and are eager to grow local companies.

Schlossberg, who's recruiting startups and entrepreneurs from abroad and locally, sees herself, in part, as a matchmaker — blending startups with major companies, creating bonds in a common space to help young companies get the contacts and investments they need and to help established companies get access to technology or services they need. Nine major local companies are seriously considering leasing space at Upward Hartford, she said.

It's also a place where angel investors like Knight can get sneak previews of startups and possible investment opportunities.

Knight says things happen in the kind of "unscripted casualness of interaction" that Upward Hartford fosters. It's the kind of environment where big ideas are birthed, he said.

"I think that's the great potential for this place and being embedded right in the center of the city and having companies already willing to have space in here and then the startups that are percolating in here — it's like if you're putting together a spaghetti sauce, these are all the ingredients you need for it to taste great," he said.

Knight sees benefits for his own ideas, too. As an inventor/entrepreneur, being around other like-minded individuals allows him to tap ideas and resources as well — and the self-described Connecticut evangelist prefers to keep business local.

"My first choice is working right here in the region … and other entrepreneurs feel the same way and it's that sort of mix that I think is very powerful," he said.

Corporate appeal

One large company drawn to Upward Hartford is insurer XL Catlin, which is leasing a four-person office on the upper floor as an innovation satellite of sorts to its local mothership of 500 to 600 employees at Constitution Plaza.

XL Catlin plans to rotate people through the office to expose them to the collaborative work environment, ideas and general vibe at Upward Hartford, said Michael Walsh, global head of central application services. XL Catlin also can get an early look at emerging technologies that could benefit its insurance business, he said.

"We consider ourselves to be an innovative company, both from an underwriting point of view as well as from a technology point of view," Walsh said, anticipating Upward Hartford could further enhance IT innovation.

"For us at XL Catlin, I think that there is something there. I don't know exactly how to harness it at this time, but just getting into the environment, my hope is that eventually the lightbulb goes off and there's a time where we say, 'That's it, here's how we actually tie this into our everyday work,' " Walsh said.

A new organization seeking to help the insurance industry is InsurTech Hartford, whose founder is working to grow the startup community around insurance technology, or InsurTech, using technology to improve or change how insurers operate or to create new products.

As a 15-year IT veteran in Hartford's insurance industry, InsurTech Hartford founder Stacey Brown says he can help InsurTech companies better understand how they can benefit insurance companies. He's arranged "meet-ups," hackathons and educational seminars involving insurance industry and InsurTech representatives, including out-of-state companies, and views his organization as a platform to advance the insurance industry through new innovations.

About $1.7 billion of venture capital funding was invested in InsurTech startups last year, Brown said, adding that much of it was invested in San Francisco, New York, Boston and overseas, with Hartford's insurance capital largely overlooked.

"If there's that much interest in the industry, I think we have an opportunity to bring some of that investment … home," Brown said.

He has already met with three local InsurTech startups, including one with a product and angel funding.

"What we need to do is help people understand that this is real, this stuff that you watch on TV, shows like 'Silicon Valley' … it's not just TV, it's real life, you can really do this stuff," Brown said of attracting bright students coming out of area universities. "All these students need to realize that there's opportunity here."

See Related Story: Upward Hartford's international appeal

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