Claire Topalian’s GSB Story – New Haven, CT

The following is a guest post by Claire Topalian, Communications Manager at Startup Weekend headquarters, about her Global Startup Battle experience.

When I signed on to Facilitate in New Haven, Connecticut for Global Startup Battle,  I was eager to see what this town  would have to offer its local entrepreneurs. For 54 hours, I was immersed in a tight-knit group of impressive entrepreneurial spirits, dynamic and caring Organizers, and dedicated local leaders.  Seeing this type of support-system up close helped me to recognize some of the more important aspects of a localized startup ecosystem.

Community Glue 

New Haven is fortunate to have local Economic Development Officials Kelly Murphy and Garrett Sheehan, who are clearly committed to ensuring a thriving future for entrepreneurship in the area.  The State of Connecticut aims to support entrepreneurs through The Grid New Haven, a hub commissioned as part of the State’s “Innovation Ecosystem” program.  The Grid aims to connect high potential companies and entrepreneurs with resources to help them grow and succeed.  See Kelly discussing the vision for The Grid and the importance of entrepreneurship here. 

It seems obvious, but the importance of an accessible, shared space cannot be overlooked.  New Haven is fortunate enough to have an incredible co-working space called The Grove.  This dynamic space has existed in the heart of downtown New Haven since 2010, and thanks to founder Slate Ballard, the entrepreneurial community has come together around the space since then. On Friday evening, as the event was kicking off, it was clear to me how much value The Grove adds to New Haven.  The exterior of the building consists primarily of ceiling-to-floor glass windows, and as participants arrived and geared up to make their opening pitches, I noticed that many bystanders who had initially stood at the windows, curious about what was happening in the space, had casually stepped in to observe.  It was clear that The Grove was a familiar space that was accustomed to walk-ins.  The Grove is an ideal workspace, but also serves as a symbol of entrepreneurship and innovation for the community.  Having a symbolic space to exist in sends a message of empowerment to entrepreneurs: you have a place to create and collaborate.  I was excited to learn that New Haven is also home to MakeHaven, a co-working space specifically dedicated to makers, tinkerers, and creativity.  

Another asset that New Haven relies on is The Whiteboard – a networking tool that fosters community and connection between developers, designers, and others.  The Whiteboard serves as a reminder that entrepreneurship is not about a “lone” entrepreneur, slaving away for years on one “big idea” – but rather, entrepreneurship is social and we must rely on one another to really see our ideas take shape in a tangible way.  See Katelyn Anton, contributor for The Whiteboard, discuss its importance here. 

One extremely valuable tool that communities can benefit from is visibility – and more specifically, media. Over the course of the weekend, every moment was captured by volunteers from Catalyst Media.  Dale Jasinski, who oversaw the media team for the weekend, aimed to de-mystify the Startup Weekend process and unveil the opportunities that it provides for people of all backgrounds – not just tech-based innovators.  See Dale explain the importance of media for SW events here.

Leadership

New Haven is a steadily-growing, vibrant startup community fueled and supported by a few key resources and, more significantly, a number of incredible people.  Without these people, Startup Weekend and every other resource and initiative in New Haven simply wouldn’t be possible – there’s no question.

Derek Koch is one of those people who is committed to supporting entrepreneurs so much so that it seems every bit of his energy is directed at finding new ways to cultivate the startup ecosystem.  Derek is a Startup Weekend Organizer and Facilitator, creator of The Whiteboard, and works hard to ensure that entrepreneurs stay connected and support one another.  Even Derek’s own venture company, Independent Software, is conducted with a vision of providing entrepreneurs with necessary tools to help them turn a vision into reality. 

Derek isn’t alone in his vision for New Haven.  The community finds support from a number of devoted individuals including John Seiffer, who recruited and organized the mentors at this year’s Startup Weekend, Katelyn Anton, a talented and energetic Startup Weekend Organizer who also works for Independent Software and writes for The Whiteboard, and plenty of others such as Rohit Sharma, Dale Jasinski, Klayton Wald, Gulia Gouge,  Kathleen Krolak, and of course, Slate Ballard with The Grove.

Over the course of one weekend, I was stunned by the passion and commitment to the local startup ecosystem that I encountered.

The Teams 

And, of course, a necessity for any entrepreneurial ecosystem are the entrepreneurs themselves – the lifeblood of healthy economies, the inspiring people who are passionate enough about changing the world or solving problems that they take real action.  SW New Haven saw a lot of talent at this event, and talking with the participants and seeing the energy behind their ideas was one of my favorite aspects of the weekend. 

The first place team, Snagit! Deals (see their GSB video pitch here), proved to be a well-balanced and dynamic team consisting of three people: Nicholas Bereza, Alex Koenigsberg, and Marina Batt.  Other teams included “A Good First Step” – a website designed to help people find accessible legal advice and aid, Musician’s Vault – a mobile app that allows musicians to collaborate on songwriting (who also just recently competed in a State-wide startup competition!), and GroupLink - a mobile app built out entirely over the weekend that allows users to easily share contact information at networking events.

Kevin Ewing worked with Michael Abernathy, a 57-year-old cop from St. Louis, on an effective tool called “F.I.S.T.S.” (Financial Instrument Security Technology Services) that prevents fraudulent check transactions.  Abernathy came from St. Louis to attend and says of the event, “We’ve done more in this weekend than I’ve tried to do in four years in St. Louis,” Abernathy said. “I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.”

I also noticed a strong presence from previous New Haven Startup Weekend events. John Fitzpatrick, Founder of ShugaTrak, was present for the entire weekend, offering support and guidance for the teams and observing their progress. Fitzpatrick notoriously refers to his own Startup Weekend experience as “similar to being shot out of a cannon.”  Rajesh Patel, who founded MeritBooster with his son at another New Haven Startup Weekend, was also an asset at this event, and he specifically mentored Snagit! as they developed their concept over the weekend.  Overall, it was clear: the individuals who have gone through Startup Weekend before are still going, still inspired, and still believers in sharing the methodology.  They are now inspirations for other individuals in the community and are committed to supporting other entrepreneurs along the way. These are the people who create strong startup ecosystems, and I firmly believe in the positive chain reaction of self-empowerment that these type of individuals help to kindle. 

I left New Haven  with a more complete understanding of what it means to cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit in one’s own “backyard.”  No one has to live in the Silicon Valley to pursue a great idea, and New Haven is a model example of a community that recognizes the importance of enabling growth locally while maintaining its own unique identity, rather than trying to emulate a different community.

I can say without any reservation that New Haven is an exceptional place for entrepreneurs – a place where new ideas are valued and nurtured, and everyone is committed to holding one another up as they take the necessary leaps required to really turn an idea into reality.