Dutch entrepreneur Jeroen Morrenhof wondered why Connecticut investors would tout the state’s location between Boston and New York as a selling point.
“To be honest, I did not know Connecticut that well before I came here,” said Morrenhof, who at the time was learning about the state’s $5 million business challenge for international companies, like his own. “I said, ‘OK, you’re promoting your state because it’s close to other big places. That’s an interesting strategy.”
On Friday, Morrenhof said he gets it. He sees the appeal. His insurance technology company FRISS took the $1.5 million top prize at the second annual VentureClash, an innovation challenge run by Connecticut Innovations, the state’s investment arm.
He says he plans to sign an agreement with CI to open a Connecticut office and move his family to the state. That’s the idea behind the venture capital challenge, which brought four foreign-based tech companies to Connecticut its first year. The winners of VentureClash don’t necessarily relocate to the state, they receive offers of funding that are contingent on opening an office here with a certain number of employees. FRISS is headquartered in the Netherlands.
“The Northeast was always on the radar — it’s the six-hour [time] difference, the big insurance penetration. It was always going to be Boston, Connecticut or New York,” Morrenhof said after his win. “So now it’s going to be Connecticut.”
Morrenhof was one of six winners from nine finalists at Friday’s competition, held at Yale’s School of Management.
If he carries out a project for The Hartford, it would be the first time opportunity for work with a U.S. client for FRISS, which uses artificial intelligence and analytical software to prevent, detect and respond to fraudulent claims, frequent claimers and other issues of risk and compliance. His company has more than 100 clients in 18 countries, Morrenhof said.
And it offers the kind of innovation that insurance companies in the Hartford area have been craving, said CI CEO Matt McCooe.
The insurance industry is beginning to embrace advancements in tech, with many Connecticut companies reopening their investment firms and creating programs for innovation, McCooe said.
And they’ve been asking for help engaging startups.
“Up until now, CI has not done as much as we would like, going forward, to find innovation and present it to them so that they’re feeling connected to the small companies and the entrepreneurial mind-set,” McCooe said.
Another company also walked away with an immediate business opportunity. Ireland-based DavraNetworks, which offers an Internet of Things platform, received a two-year, $120,000 agreement with Microsoft.
In addition to Connecticut Innovations’ top prize to FRISS, offers of $1 million went to two companies: social networking-meets-payment tool developer Vouchr, of Canada, and Israeli cybersecurity company SCADAfence.
Prizes of $500,000 were awarded to three companies: Davra Networks, and health technology company EAVE and moving-related software company Buzzmove, both of the United Kingdom.
Catherine Smith, commissioner of the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development, said she hoped the remaining finalists would move to the state as well.
“This was not an easy call for the judges, who represented an insurance company, bank and several investment firms,” said Smith. “Please make Connecticut your home. We think everyone is on a really interesting road and can really make a difference.”
Foreign-based companies employ about 6 percent of the state’s workforce, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Last year, the inaugural VentureClash offered $5 million in prizes to six companies, four of which went on to sign deals and open offices in the state.
Three settled in Stamford, including Toronto-based digital and mobile payment tool developer Dream Payments, whose CEO Brent Ho-Young moderated a panel on finance and insurance technology at Friday’s event. His company took first prize in 2016.
The fourth 2016 winner, health technology company LindaCare, of Belgium, opened in Hartford.
Morrenhof said he’s looking forward to making his own move now that the search has been narrowed down to the little state between Boston and New York. He said he thinks he will chose Hartford, New Haven or Stamford.
“It’s amazing over the last 48 hours I’m in Connecticut how many people are really helping out already and saying, ‘This is a great state, you really have to go here,’” he said. “I’m really impressed.”
Correction: This story was updated on Nov. 4. An earlier version incorrectly stated that FRISS received a contract from The Hartford. FRISS received a $25,000 grant called an Innovation Award from The Hartford.