Ojala Naeem was nervous when ReSET, the Hartford startup-business incubator she directs, raised the bar for its latest round of applications, limiting entry into its 4-month program to businesses already generating investments or revenue.
Naeem hoped the new requirement would help attract successful businesses ready for growth, even if it significantly thinned the field. Instead, the “impact accelerator” program got 110 applications — triple what reSET received in 2016 and a sign that word may be getting out that Connecticut is open for business.
Through early December, applications streamed in from the major innovation hubs of New York City, Boston and Silicon Valley; from the United Kingdom and Canada; from India and Azerbaijan, Brazil and Haiti, Hungary and Malawi, Mexico and Spain, and a dozen other countries.
“We were banking on getting some companies from other places,” Naeem said. “That was a big shift we made that really worked out.”
The 22 companies that ultimately enrolled with reSET will spend January through May in Hartford, working with mentors, meeting prospective clients, attending business workshops and planning their growth — growth that may take root in this state.
ReSET, a Hartford nonprofit, is funded by the state and a consortium of businesses, including the MetroHartford Alliance and the Walker Group, a Farmington-based digital and technology consultant. Since its creation in 2007, reSET says it has has awarded more than $250,000 to new and growing businesses, and its graduates have generated $4.4 million in revenue.
That desire to foster economic development in the state is partly why 14 of this year’s participants are Connecticut-based, Naeem said. Still, eight out-of-state startups made the cut as well, including a California-based company co-founded by the former chief technology officer of StubHub, an Israeli company that’s already renting a desk at Upward Hartford, a co-working space on Church Street.
Last year, the impact accelerator did not even have eight out-of-state options, just two companies from Massachusetts and one from Chile. This year, 65 companies applied from numerous states and 22 countries.
Boaz Zilberman is CEO of Project Ray, a 4-year-old Israeli company developing smartphones and apps for the blind, and now new member of reSET’s impact accelerator. The company started renting office space in Hartford this year after meeting Upward Hartford CEO Shana Schlossberg, who does regular outreach to Israeli companies.
Project Ray also recently received a $150,000 loan from Connecticut Innovations. But Zilberman says he’s known of reSET for more than a year, because the nonprofit has a good reputation among Israeli social impact ventures.
“Once I got to Hartford, it became natural to approach them,” he said. “This is the type of ecosystem we need in order to bring in business, to push it forward.”
The new cohort also has three companies from New York City, though the major startup community has at least 20 incubators and accelerators of its own.
But Barak Oksayan, whose company Tatjack is developing an app to match tattoo artists with clients, says there’s an appeal to swimming in a smaller pond, like Connecticut.
Whereas networking events in New York yielded lots of introductions but few connections, Oksayan eventually found a mentor in Eric Knight, an entrepreneur-in-residence at reSET.
“I started going to his advising sessions. I was driving up two hours from New York City to talk to him only 30 minutes,” Oksayan said with a laugh.
From there, reSET reached out to encourage Tatjack to apply to the impact accelerator. “If we get investment from Connecticut, I might just move my headquarters there,” he said. “We can do this anywhere. If the opportunity comes, why not?”
Zilberman said he still thinks Washington, D.C., could be the ideal location for his first international office, but he echoed Oksayan’s praise of smaller cities and lesser-known states.
“For a company actually building a startup, to be in New York or Boston is extremely expensive. And second, you are one of too many other companies like you,” he said. “Here there is a small enough community we can get an initial impact quite rapidly.”
The impact acclerator at reSET is not alone in expanding its reach beyond the state.
The Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology has seen about a 10 percent increase in out-of-state business over the past year at its Advanced Manufacturing Center, thanks to relationships with businesses in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Florida and even Alaska, says spokesman Silvio Albino.
VentureClash, a $5 million international business challenge run by Connecticut Innovations — the state’s venture capital firm — also saw a spike in interest this year.
The pitch-off competition had 285 applications in 2017, up from 165 in 2016, according to CI spokesperson Lauren Carmody.
She, too, said the increased demand is a sign that the state’s reputation is finally starting to change in the eyes of entrepreneurs.
Carmody said the evidence goes beyond successful programs like the impact accelerator, or competitions like VentureClash.
On Dec. 5, Stanley Black & Decker Inc. announced plans to open an advanced manufacturing training and research center in downtown Hartford next year, with a focus on cyber technology, the internet of things, cloud computing, robotics and 3-D printing.
Four days earlier, the Hartford InsurTech Hub unveiled its own inaugural cohort of 11 startups chosen from 1,000 applications. They’ll relocate to the city in January for a three-month accelerator program run by Startupbootcamp, a global leader in the creation of startup hubs.
“We think this is the start of something very, very good,” Carmody said. “There have been the beginnings of this for a long, long time but we think right now we’re establishing some critical mass.”