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A New Crop of Local, Creative, Small Businesses Appear in Connecticut

A new trend in home-grown manufacturing

By Siobhan Crise

4:25 PM EDT, April 30, 2013

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It took entrepreneur Chris Farrell 10 years to go from a scribble on the back of a placemat to a product prototype with industry certification.

And the Orange-based businessman's brainchild wouldn't have become a commercial reality without manufacturers at home in Connecticut, who helped develop and refine his product, an innovative cleaning and storage container for chef's knives.

Farrell is one of a band of start-up entrepreneurs who are forging new relationships in the shrinking Connecticut manufacturing industry — and the state is actively trying to foster those bonds.

Connecticut hasn't been immune to the challenges faced by manufacturers nationwide, such as the economic slowdown and competition from low-cost producers like China. There were 4,800 manufacturers in the state in 2011, according to the most recent data from the Connecticut Department of Labor, down 10 percent from 2006.

For a first-time inventor like Farrell, low-cost production wasn't the priority. More important was a company that was in striking distance of his day job at a Manhattan law office and could actively collaborate on the "SmartBucket."

He met with manufacturers in Long Island and New Jersey before sealing an agreement with Cliff White Jr. of Somerset Plastics in Middletown. "'On the cheap' was really never my intent," said Farrell. "The places had to be close. You can meet face to face. That's really a huge difference."

Over in New Haven, medical device start-up NovaTract Surgical Inc. opted for a local manufacturer because chief executive officer Eleanor Tandler "wanted a detail-oriented manufacturer that could work closely with us through the initial steps of setting up production of the new device."

NovaTract, which was founded in 2010, designed and prototyped early versions of its surgeon's tool with Synectic Medical Product Development, based in Milford. It is now using Lyons Tool and Die Company in Meriden to manufacture the device, which will be launched later this year.

Connecticut Innovations, the investment agency set up by the state to bolster emerging hi-tech companies, has helped NovaTract along the way with three chunks of funding totaling $1.5 million. (Other Connecticut investors in a funding round last year included Vital Financial and Standard Oil).

As well as investment, the state is also encouraging entrepreneurs through a network of four "hubs" known as "Connecticut's Innovation Ecosystem," which Governor Malloy launched last year. Participants can get strategic advice and a workspace at the Hartford, New Haven, Stamford, and Storrs locations; Chris Farrell is using the Stamford hub to work on his SmartBucket business.

Connecticut is also enticing entrepreneurs from out of state to do business with manufacturers here. The number of people employed in manufacturing has dropped by more than 40,000 in a decade. At the end of last year 160,000 people were employed in the Connecticut manufacturing industry, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Susie Hadas, founder of the Personally Cool Inc., got a matching grant from the state's Small Business Express program with a view to creating jobs in Connecticut. Hadas, who lives in Long Island but, like Farrell, uses the Stamford Innovation Center, said she is looking for a facility and hopes to move by the end of the year.

Her invention, a gel-pack personal-cooling product, is currently assembled and shipped out from a facility in Pennsylvania, with components and materials coming from across the country and Asia. "We began manufacturing before CT was even on our radar," she said.

Jack Crane, a director at manufacturing consulting group CONNSTEP, said in many cases the smaller initial volumes of finished products being produced by young companies don't justify the costs of shipping from overseas. "If you're getting into very small lots it's difficult to do business abroad," he said.

Crane said local manufacturers have a lot to offer early-stage companies. For products that need modification "you're much better off here working with someone close to you," he said. Local manufacturers bring "an ability to solve your problem," he said.

(CONNSTEP is also going to bat for manufacturers by building a free searchable database of companies in the state. Last year it launched its "Made in CT" program, which showcases manufacturers to legislators, the general public and other manufacturers. "It's important for these guys to have a voice," said CONNSTEP marketing and communications manager Rebecca Mead.)

"Experts at their craft that look outside the box are hard to find," said Farrell, who invested more than $60,000 on creating the metal molds to produce the SmartBucket's main parts. In addition to Somerset Plastics, he's using two more local manufacturers for the product's other components.

For entrepreneurs Mark Donne and Jason Maloney, the relationship with their manufacturer is more than just product development and advice: he's an investor in their Fairfield-based business, diffr3nt.

To work with someone local "was a conscious decision from the beginning," said co-founder and chief creative officer Donne. Sam Mazzarelli , the boss of Commercial Sewing is the third partner in diffr3nt, which makes slender canvas iPhone cases that double as wallets. The first cases were sold in September 2012.

A huge advantage of having the manufacturer just a drive away is the ability to talk directly to engineers and seamstresses about minor changes in the design that can be put into effect within weeks, Donne said. "We're able to tweak and make adjustments," he said.

A section of the Commercial Sewing factory in Torrington is dedicated to diffr3nt. "The best part of all of this is that we have a place to play," said Donne.