Connecticut would like to reinvent itself as the next Silicon Valley. Some economic development experts say our future lies with the state’s small technology companies. If that’s to become a reality, Connecticut’s universities will have to be a key part of the change. A conference today at UConn aims to show the way.
eGen is a Connecticut company that’s aiming to revolutionize global hydropower. The company has a patented system that can harvest energy from running water. But eGen’s Heidi Douglas says when it came time to take the idea off the drawing board, the company needed the help of the University of Connecticut. “We needed to have a physical environment where we could test an early prototype. So we worked with civil and environmental engineering where they just happened to have the water flume available for us to be able to perform the testing. We actually did this as part of a senior design project.”
Douglas, a microbiologist and UConn grad is a serial entrepreneur, along with her engineer husband Joel Douglas. In 2004 they started another company, MysticMD that makes a lightweight, flexible and highly conductive material for use in medical devices. “Specifically blood glucose monitoring and making a low-cost disposable strip that would be used in glucose meters.”
The material also has applications in fuel cells and lithium ion batteries. Soon after it started, MysticMD moved into the premises of UConn’s technology incubator program at Avery Point. “They really became our partners in business, and when you’re a small company and there are only a couple of you, that whole sense of credibility and partnership and being able to reach into university resources was absolutely invaluable.”
Helping entrepreneurs like the Douglases is a process known as economic gardening – growing small, high tech companies here in the state in the hope that one of them might be the next Google or Microsoft. “The state is in a point of change. We have to really focus on what’s going to drive the economy here in the state in the next 20 years.”
Frank Milone of the Connecticut Venture Group is one of organizers of a conference Wednesday at UConn’s Storrs campus which will showcase stories like that of eGen and MysticMD, showing how the university can work hand in hand with tiny companies. “Say even a small or a family owned business that’s looking to grow, and they have this great idea and this great research. But they don’t have the money or access to talent. Well, if they engage with the university they can get that access to either engineering research or students on the school of business to help them put together business plans and bring forth research and ideas into maybe a patented technology ability or even get a grant.”
Milone says you don’t have to be Pratt & Whitney or Pitney Bowes to have your voice heard. “People sometimes think of the university as this massive corporation here in the state and you can’t really get at, you know, how do I do that – I don’t know, I can’t call a number – well, you can.”
Those portals into the university’s resources will be a key part of the innovation conference, which will showcase the work of UConn’s Office of Technology Commercialization as well as its incubator programs. The Connecticut Technology Council recently surveyed tech company CEOs about the changes they wanted to see in the state to make it more business-friendly. CTC’s Matthew Nemerson says networking with academia was one key response. “They knew there was a lot of great stuff going on at Yale and UConn, but they wanted it to be easier for them to access it. And what we have found is that some of the technical schools around the country that come to mind, places like MIT and Georgia Tech and Carnegie Mellon – they tend to have better systems in place to reach out to companies because they’re always going back and forth doing programs with companies and companies come to them with ideas and that’s sort of the culture there.”
The keynote speaker at today’s conference will be Scott Case, a UConn grad and one of the country’s most successful tech entrepreneurs – he was one of the founders of Priceline.com.