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Connecticut's First Innovation Chief Talks Goals for New Job

Inaugural CINO Dan O’Keefe helped design his new position, which will work to build an ecosystem for tech companies and other innovative businesses to grow and thrive in the state.

Man holding light bulbs, ideas of new ideas with innovative technology and creativity. concept creativity with bulbs that shine glitter.
Connecticut has created a state chief innovation officer (CINO) position — with a twist.

Other states often charge their CINOs with finding creative and modern approaches to incorporate into government operations. But Connecticut is looking outward. The new role there instead focuses on supporting and growing an innovation economy, said Dan O’Keefe, who became the state’s first CINO this year after helping design the position.

As CINO, he’ll focus on supporting an ecosystem for tech companies and others to take a chance on new ways of doing things — growing the state’s economy too.

The last decade was a difficult economic time for Connecticut, and the state has been working to recover. O’Keefe said employers currently have more jobs than they can fill, and the state has recently improved its financial picture, setting the stage to “more aggressively invest in long-term growth.”

As O’Keefe enters this role, he’s focused on taking a broad look at what “innovation” means and how the state can help, with ideas like establishing centers of excellence, promoting training and coordinating across stakeholders.

Connecticut is not tightly defining what qualifies as innovative businesses. O’Keefe said it encompasses any companies taking risks by doing something new, in a way that can grow their share of the market, build jobs and generally improve the economy.

“Technology companies are definitionally innovative, but I also include anyone who's leveraging innovation as a core competency, as a core contribution to their own competitive differentiation,” he said. “… Connecticut — like all states — is not just one singular economy. It’s made up of a series of different regions where innovations might mean something different. In some places, it’s a software business. In some places, it’s a coffee roaster who just simply creates an innovative way to roast coffee.”

To support such companies, O’Keefe has a range of tools. One is grants, but O’Keefe compared one-time funding to a sugar rush rather than growing muscle. Grants will be part of the picture, but his main goal is to develop culture and infrastructure long term.

He anticipates coordinating across existing economic development programs, including those aimed at attracting employers, as well as supporting tech and innovation companies with venture capital and internship programs. This work also could include encouraging accelerators and incubators to support startups, and using his statewide view to get a holistic understanding of needs and challenges.

“What I'm focused on is inputs … . It's things like access to capital, it’s talent, it’s workforce training and retraining, it’s creating places — actual physical spaces — where innovation can thrive, where those inputs can come together,” O’Keefe said.

Promoting an innovation economy may also include supporting centers of excellence. The state has a few, including Hartford’s fintech, or New Haven’s density of bioscience and climate-related technology companies. But that doesn't preclude creating new centers. O’Keefe said a potential initiative would be to establish a center of excellence and innovation campus in Stamford that would serve as a physical home for coworking space, workforce training and a business accelerator.  

Through this all, O’Keefe is very aware he’s defining a new role. As such, he’s looking to take a measured, gradual approach. His first year is focused on connecting with stakeholders to learn about needs, challenges and perspectives. This includes trying to understand what draws companies to move into or out of the state. Down the line, he expects to produce a strategic plan, with parts made public.

O’Keefe isn’t new to this kind of work — he comes with 25 years of private-sector experience investing in growth-stage companies. When looking to the public sector, though, O’Keefe didn’t initially plan to join state government: He was discussing a potential federal position when plans changed.

“Just to kind of understand whether or not that [federal job] might be a good fit for me, I reached out and ended up having lunch with the governor of Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont,” O’Keefe said. “And he made the point to me that if you really care about impact … you really change people's lives at the state level — that's where you can really truly have an impact on the trajectory of someone's quality of life.”

That conversation ultimately led them to designing the state-level CINO position. And the time may be ripe for Connecticut to launch this effort.

The 2010-2020 period has been deemed Connecticut’s “lost decade,” with the Connecticut Post noting the state’s GDP shrank while the nation’s leaped ahead. State job growth also paled comparatively, and, for five years, an average of 24,000 people left the state annually. Not everything is fixed now, with a 2023 report from research and advocacy organization Connecticut Voices for Children finding the state had slower post-pandemic and post-Great Recession growth in personal income, nonfarm employment and GDP than that of the U.S. overall.

But O’Keefe said the state’s financial footing has improved of late, including notable down payments toward its pension system debt and filling its rainy-day fund.

“We now have a foundation upon which we can more aggressively invest in long-term growth,” he said.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a senior staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.