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Connecticut ‘Innovation Clusters’ Commits $100M to Tech

The state program would match private dollars in an effort to build out the technology ecosystem with project funding. Areas of focus could include data centers, operations support or backing lab space.

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(TNS) — It was altogether fitting that Gov. Ned Lamont unfurled Connecticut's latest technology development push on Wednesday at the Yale Innovation Summit, with UConn president Radenka Maric and Yale President (for a few more weeks) Peter Salovey, both in attendance.

The "Innovation Clusters Program" commits $100 million over the next five years with the goal of matching private dollars to build out the state's tech ecosystem with project funding. The money could back lab space, or operations support for promising companies or super-computing data centers among other ideas, all of it designed to build on the industries already strong in Connecticut.

You know the targeted areas: advanced manufacturing, genetics and genomics, drug development, and financial and insurance tech.

And you know the history, which Lamont recounted to the friendly audience at the place where he earned his masters degree in business some 44 years ago, the Yale School of Management.

"We were once the most entrepreneurial state in the country," the governor told a packed room of several hundred people at the summit. "We were pretty good. We got a little flat."

Lamont's good news: "Over the last five, 10 years, we've had more innovation, more new startups, more job creation, more people moving into the state than ever before."

The question now is whether this latest push will lead to the holy grail of mass job creation for the home state in a way that previous technology initiatives have not. There's reason for optimism and there's reason for us to remain skeptical.

Wednesday's roll out hinged on quantum technology and computing as a unifying vision in the state's hopes to build its technology base. Key to that is the consortium known as QuantumCT, formed last year between Yale and the University of Connecticut — which is preparing an application for a $166 million National Science Foundation grant.

Connecticut won a small planning grant back at the end of 2022 to set up this effort, and that's a good omen toward the big money, Maric told me in an interview.

Maric, who spent decades in technology development before she was named to head UConn, believes quantum science will "be bigger than computing in the '80s and '90s" as a revolutionary force, feeding artificial intelligence applications. Quantum, she said donning her teaching hat, "explains the behavior of energy and materials on the atomic and subatomic level" — and quantum computers, using lasers and photon detectors rather than silicon processors, change the game with ultra-speed.

"The question is, how do you position your state and your economy to educate people and innovate and be a leader?" Maric said. "Is Connecticut going to be ahead of the game or is Connecticut going to be behind?"

She added, "The aim is to transform Connecticut's economy, workforce."

Daniel O'Keefe, Lamont's economic and community development commissioner, explained the goal of the grant program, which opens with his agency issuing a request for information from companies, nonprofits and educational institutions on Monday.

"We want to be flexible. We don't think it's the role of the state to say to the market what the market should do. We want the market to come to us," O'Keefe said. "We want the market thinking bigger. Larger, more transformational investments."

If the Innovation Cluster Program sounds familiar, it is. Governors at least since Lowell P. Weicker Jr., with the exception of M. Jodi Rell, have poured big money into grand plans to advance the state's tech industries. Former Gov. John G. Rowland even called his push the clusters program and he hired Harvard's Michael E. Porter, godfather of industry clusters, to lend it heft.

Former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy spent hundreds of millions of dollars on biotech and life sciences, $300 million alone moving the Jackson Laboratory from Maine to Farmington.

Through it all, the thousands of promised jobs that would spin off from these programs did not materialize. Often, young companies would move to Boston and other more mature tech locales. And more recently, as the CT Mirror's Erica Phillips pointed out in her story about Wednesday's rollout, the state's "Innovation Places" and "Innovation Corridors" programs have been less than successful.

That history gives us reason to temper our glee. On the other hand, we see signs that this time is different.

Yale, UConn and the state have long had some friction and territorial mentality. That seems to be gone, as QuantumCT, for example, is headed jointly by UConn research VP Pamir Alpay and Yale Vice Provost for Research Michael Crair.

"We have to decide how we can serve the state," Maric told me, "and how we can work together." She explained how Yale will take the lead in interdisciplinary quantum computing and life sciences applications, and UConn in cybersecurity, materials science, aerospace and insurance, with plenty of overlap.

The spirit of pulling together seemed genuine at Yale on Wednesday, as Lamont declared it "Peter Salovey Day" with a proclamation that feted the outgoing Yale president, a social psychologist, as a champion of technology development, on the day Yale announced his successor. The summit organizer, Yale Ventures Managing Director Josh Geballe, was previously a top Lamont aide.

Plus we have a lot more critical mass. All of these past programs might not have created thousands of jobs but they have led to a rising number of companies especially in biotech in New Haven. One session at the Yale summit extolled New Haven as "The Next Great Innovation Hub" and while that reflected some homerism, the crowd of 2,500 entrepreneurs, researchers and financial backers at the summit backed up the boast.

I spoke with some private investors and some folks from Connecticut Innovations, the state's quasi-public venture capital arm, about job creation as the holy grail. They see billions of dollars in homegrown value, a notable achievement in their view. Logic says jobs in significant numbers will follow eventually.

Finally, Lamont's "Innovation Clusters Program" is designed to create growth intelligently through a coordinated system, not by throwing a ton of money at companies that may or may not create jobs. At $100 million from the state, it's modest as these things go but combined with private dollars, the possible federal grant and in-kind contributions from Yale and UConn, it could top $400 million over ten years.

Yes, we've seen this before. But Lamont, citing biographies by Walter Isaacson, talked about "playing to our strengths" and about how Steve Jobs used calligraphy and Albert Einstein used his violin music to think broadly and creatively. That's the right way to think about it. Economic development has a better chance of success when it's about ideas, not just a money spigot.

"We've got to make investments alongside the private sector," Lamont said, "in places where Connecticut has a real advantage."

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