The software and Internet explosion in Silicon Valley was still years away when Sukhminder Grewal worked there as a nuclear engineer for General Electric in the '80s.
But when Yale School of Medicine recruited Grewal's wife, a post-doctoral immunologist then at Stanford, the young couple headed east, to Connecticut.
"It broke my heart to move," Grewal said. "We said, 'We'll give it a shot.'"
Grewal joined GE's Fairfield headquarters, where he examined what computerization could mean. That led to his role developing 3-D computer design at GE's jet engine unit, work he did largely while on the road.
By the end of the 1990s, Grewal created a team for GE that automated and coordinated in-house communications and processes across the corporation — a software challenge that required a platform similar to today's social networks.
"The dot-com thing was booming and GE gave us $2 million to get started and I told them we needed to move to New Haven because that's where the talent was," Grewal recalls.
The core of the team remains together in New Haven. But in 2011, they left as a group to form Veoci, with Grewal as CEO. Veoci, now with 16 people, is using the platform largely in the emergency and crisis response industry, where rapid coordination is critical.
In one project with the city of New Haven, Veoci is working with SeeClickFix, a Yale-connected startup that has a platform allowing anyone to report an infrastructure problem to authorities, from potholes to downed wires.
And so the "shot" continues. Grewal's story, extraordinary as it is, reflects Connecticut's contemporary technology scene: a growing collection of companies populated by people with ties to universities and giant local corporations, many of whom came to Connecticut through a spouse or a different job.
The ecosystems are growing as well, not only Grewal's enterprise software space but also in biomechanics, advanced materials, optics, alternative energy, drug development and manufacturing technology, among others. And there is a considerable structure in place to nurture it all.
Still, in the big picture, the number of emerging companies and successful tech startups remains too small. Connecticut's largest research players — most recently Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, known as JAX — must spin off a large number of firms if Connecticut is to gain a significant number of jobs from technology innovation. The state produced a report showing that JAX could lead to 4,000 additional jobs, which is rolled out to justify its investment in JAX.
Big numbers like that will be a challenge as companies face brutal cost controls, as a few centers of technology — Boston, New York, Silicon Valley — garner a lion's share of the national attention, and as Connecticut lacks a large metro area to attract people. But the state's history of innovation with large companies in diverse fields is a plus.
"There are lots of companies in this space," Grewal said, referring to Veoci's field, "but very few of them have the experience that we do of 10 years at GE."
New Life In Bioscience
Connecticut's support for bioscience — $1.3 billion under Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, including $291 million at Jackson Lab — is the subject of controversy. But the state has always paid to back technology. In 1789, Connecticut gave tax breaks and other benefits to Jeremiah Wadsworth, the capital city's richest citizen, whose Hartford Woolen Co. mill outfitted George Washington.
At the University of Connecticut, Eric Sirois recently graduated with a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. He used academic ties, his background as a submariner and medical industry experience to create a heart valve, inserted using a catheter, that's 40 percent smaller than valves now in use.
Sirois founded Dura Biotech in 2012 at the UConn Technology Incubator Program after working for several years in the lab of Wei Sun, a UConn professor. Sirois also had a class with Hadi Bozorgmanesh, an engineering professor who helps students spin off startup firms. Previously, Sirois had been a machinist's mate, supervising the engine room of the USS Virginia submarine, based in Groton.
"From all my military experiences I could build things," said Sirois, whose firm won a pair of $400,000 awards last summer — a federal Small Business Innovation Research grant and an investment from the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund, part of Connecticut Innovations.
The device, which could enter animal testing in 2015, is based on a structure similar to the cables on a suspension bridge.
Susan Froshauer, now president of Connecticut United for Research Excellence, a biosciences industry group, has, like Grewal in New Haven, a 30-year view of her industry's innovation sweep in Connecticut. She was a Yale Ph.D. and postdoc who went to work for Pfizer in the '80s and '90s, where she worked on partnerships with drug development firms such as Neurogen.
"We Pfizer scientists sought out these companies and some of them were in Connecticut," she said.
Froshauer later was founding CEO of Rib-X Pharmaceuticals, a firm that develops "small molecule" compounds to kill multi-drug-resistant bacteria, based on the research of Yale's Thomas Steitz, a Nobel Prize winner and the firm's chief science officer. Like many Connecticut drug firms, Rib-X has yet to see its product on the market.
"It takes 15 years to get from an idea to a pill in the bottle," said Froshauer, who said she has a new appreciation for late-stage drug development — the work that Pfizer is now doing in Connecticut.
Broadly speaking, Connecticut's drug industry specializes in compounds that interfere with harmful microorganisms — antibiotics, for example, such as Zithromax, developed by Pfizer in Groton. Another example is Protein Sciences of Meriden which developed the first approved flu vaccine made from cell cultures, not eggs. But the work is diverse, at Boehringer Ingelheim, Alexion, Bristol Myers-Squibb and many smaller firms.
And it's interconnected. "If you think of an onion as the entire cluster, you can think of the center of the onion as the university scientists who are inventing things," Froshauer said — warning that the threat of cuts in federal health research grants "has dire consequences."
Connecticut's presence in many technology industries is an advantage, according to Kip Bergstrom, deputy commissioner at the state Department of Economic and Community Development. He cites work done by MIT researcher Cesar Hidalgo, showing that nations in 1985 with the most diverse technology businesses (which he called "LEGO pieces," a nice Connecticut tie-in) showed the best growth over the last 30 years.
"I think we probably have the most diverse skill set and diverse mix of companies of just about any place in the country if not the world," Bergstrom said. "If you were going to have one attribute, that would be the one."
On the other hand, the diversity means Connecticut doesn't have dominant or critical mass in any area. And in many ways, we're still recovering from the crushing recession of 1989-94, when defense, banking, real estate and insurance all retrenched at the same time.
The interconnected sectors have built on each other in obvious and non-obvious ways, such as the way mechanical, software and drug development expertise came together at Pfizer to develop robots for rapid screening of compounds 25 years ago.
The insurance industry, in another example, has delivered new ways of controlling and managing risk. At The Hartford, a unit is working on using transportation data such as route and braking patterns to signal to fleet operators that safety or efficiency is less than ideal. "Ten years ago, we would have all the drivers come in on a Saturday morning and take a class," said Joseph Coray, a vice president at The Hartford.
Coray heads a unit The Hartford started in 2005, exclusively serving tech companies, with underwriters dedicated to understanding problems specific to emerging and research-based firms. The unit, based in Hartford, is very active in its home state, he said.
In health care, Aetna has worked with universities to look at factors that lead to better or worse health outcomes. One example: a 2011 grant of $150,000 to Yale, for a study on the connections between the environments in low-income New Haven neighborhoods and childhood and adult obesity.
That's part of a trend in which researchers are using data to mine health improvements in an age when the cost of new drugs, procedures and devices can be astronomical. "It's about the big picture of health care, not just pills or surgery," said Froshauer, at CURE, the research industry group.
In Stamford, Jay Walker, who launched Priceline.com in 1998, has consistently invented and innovated in software and electronics, with groundbreaking work and more than 450 patents in media, gaming and vending, among other fields. He and his firm, Walker Digital, are global, of course, as is Sikorsky nearby. And just as Sikorsky fits into a local aviation history, Walker is part of an electonics and media tradition in Stamford that goes back to the old CBS Laboratories, which moved to the city from New York in 1958 after pioneering color TV and the 331/3 -rpm, long-playing record.
Before it closed in 1986, CBS Labs developed video recording and TV graphics — staples today at ESPN in Bristol, which is now taking studio graphics far beyond with its $175 million digital broadcast center that opened this year, and at NBC Sports, in Stamford, which brought the entire Olympics coverage to the United States with a single, dedicated fiber-optic line.
CBS closed that lab in 1986, in a cost-saving move. The moral: In Connecticut as elsewhere, the business of innovation relies on a love-hate relationship with large companies, which are plentiful here and can nurture great work.
Sukh Grewal, the Veoci CEO who worked for decades at GE, believes the big corporations can nurture invention, but can also limit innovation.
GE never killed a good idea for lack of money, he said. But he noted, "Could GE have taken us and created a business out of it? They do things that are very mainstream to what they are…Innovation comes from people who don't fit into the corporate world."
Either way, Connecticut over the centuries has cast its lot as a place for not only the spark of invention, but also the slog of product development through years of innovating how things are made — sometimes with tiny improvements that make a huge difference.
"Some of our big players kept being innovative," said Bergstrom, at DECD. "They didn't get disrupted by the smaller competitors."