Senate Bill One is usually the flagship legislation of any session, the Big Idea that signals lawmakers’ vision for the state. This year, it’s all about building entrepreneurship in Connecticut, but it hasn’t received the kind of fanfare you might expect.
SB1 is titled An Act Concerning Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Connecticut’s Economic Future. It contains a lot of changes to the way government might interact with entrepreneurs. "I just felt that we needed to turn the page," said the bill's principal author, Senator John Fonfara, "and to focus not on taxes and spending, but on growing our economy."
The new bill would establish a new quasi-public entity to be called ImpaCT, which would inherit "certain duties" from Connecticut Innovations, the state's existing venture capital investment agency. The legislation would also put in place what it terms "innovation districts."
"ImpaCT's role is to look out over the landscape, higher ed and in terms of innovation districts," Fonfara told WNPR. He said other states have seen entrepreneurial activity focus in cities. "Frankly we're a surburban-dominated state, where this kind of activity, it's harder to catch."
But some of the state's prominent entrepreneurs have expressed caution about its approach.
"There’s a lot of good in here, but it really needs to be thought out better," said entrepreneur and business owner Mark Lassoff.
Lassoff wants "to make sure we’re benefiting Connecticut for where Connecticut is on its entrepreneurial growth curve today." He said he’s thrilled to see the state responding to the loss of General Electric by thinking about smaller, homegrown companies, but he said it’s not entirely clear how the new plan fits in with the infrastructure that’s already here.
“One thing entrepreneurs want is consistency,” he said.
What’s absent from the bill is any mention of CTNext, the state’s existing entrepreneurial ecosystem, which was established back in 2011 -- in that year's much-touted Jobs Bill.
"To give that up just so we have a new piece of legislation with the current legislature’s stamp on it I’m not sure is the wisest idea," said Lassoff.
Fonfara counters that CTNext will still be part of the picture. "It will be under ImpaCT, and we will greatly expand CTNext," he said. "In terms of its reach, in terms of its role, in terms of its capitalization."
Lassoff likes the fact that SB1 would reauthorize the Angel Investment tax credit, but he’d like to see it extended to investors in benefit corporations, entities which have been a big success in the state in recent years.
He’s also concerned that the funding for companies in this bill aims too high, and might just attract companies from out of state instead of fostering homegrown entrepreneurs.
"There’s no question that the goal is the right goal," said Ted Yang, another Connecticut-based serial entrepreneur. He's also happy to see innovation at the center of attention, and likes a lot of elements of the bill, but he’s similarly concerned that the approach is too top-down. "I don’t think we need more organizations and more infrastructure, but we do kind of need the outcomes," he said.
Yang would like to see more attention paid to the graduates of institutions like Yale and UConn, who -- if they’re tempted to remain in the state -- could foster a whole lot of economic activity of the sort that GE went to Boston to find.
"I think more energy needs to be spent on let’s just keep the big brains, the talent, the passionate entrepreneurs that we have in the state from leaving," said Yang.