#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Bill Kenney, Founder of the CT Entrepreneurial Event Calendar, CT Entrepreneurial Mentor Cooperative, and CT Entrepreneur Awards (Connecticut)
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
What’s your role in your ecosystem?
I am an unaffiliated pirate! I convene, connect, and cause collaboration. So far, I've led the formation and launch of:
The CT Entrepreneurial Event Calendar, a collaborative effort by over 15 Connecticut entrepreneur-support organizations that provides innovators and founders with easy access to all events of interest around the state;
The CT Entrepreneurial Mentor Cooperative, which is a network of all of the local mentor networks which are in universities, incubators, and accelerators. We've cooperatively developed and ratified common standards and have begun sharing resources for discrete needs; and,
The CT Entrepreneur Awards, a competition that identifies, recognizes, and celebrates Connecticut’s top entrepreneurs, ventures, and entrepreneurial support organizations.
Almost all of the work that I do is focused on making the entire state of Connecticut a hub for entrepreneurship and economic independence. While there are various regional and institutional efforts across the state, my goal is to foster collaboration and interconnection among these entities.
And you’re also an entrepreneur, right?
Yes, I founded Test My Pitch in 2013. It’s an online platform that helps students, entrepreneurs, and professionals with their communication skills. Think of it like a "batting cage" for communication skill building. Our customers are universities, business accelerators, and corporations.
What are some of the most exciting things that have happened in Connecticut in the past year?
Last year, Connecticut Innovations (the state’s venture fund) launched the first annual VentureClash competition, a global venture challenge focused on early-stage companies. The challenge identifies high-potential companies in digital health, IoT, InsureTech and Fintech that will compete for investments from a $5 million award pool. This coming October, the competing companies will pitch their plans during the one-day final at Yale University. The competition is exciting because it allows some of the world’s most promising startups to experience Connecticut’s rich ecosystem firsthand.
The second thing would have to be the launch of the inaugural CT Entrepreneur Awards, which we announced earlier this year and will be holding this coming April. The CT Entrepreneur Awards identify, recognize, and celebrate Connecticut’s leading entrepreneurs, ventures, and ecosystem elements that support them. The CT Entrepreneur Awards are a product of the CT Entrepreneur Event Organizers consortium. This is an all-volunteer cooperative effort of all the people and organizations that host and facilitate entrepreneur facing events around the state.
What is the biggest challenge you face in Connecticut?
Like many ecosystems, we tend to be fairly siloed (in terms of geography, institutions, and other factors). There are a bunch of entities working to build entrepreneurial communities in the state and sometimes they don’t communicate with each other. Over time, these silos have caused redundant events and programs while leaving certain markets underserved.
This represents both a challenge and an opportunity for our state. As Steven Covey argues, you have to be independent before you can be interdependent and work together to achieve a common goal. As each of these entities grows and matures (and hopefully finds ways to generate revenue absent outside support), we will eventually see a more integrated, collaborative state. The organizations I have founded in Connecticut are aimed at facilitating that and overcoming existing silos.
What are some of the inputs that have helped your ecosystem grow?
There are several inputs that should begin to bear fruit soon. Those include CTNext, a entrepreneurial support network that provides resources and mentorship for startups in the state; CURE, a bioscience cluster for Connecticut’s life and healthcare sciences companies of all sizes; The Refinery, a Westport-based accelerator for female entrepreneurs; Innovate Hartford, a 27,500-square-foot innovation hub that offers a coworking space and incubator for startups and entrepreneurs; and District New Haven, an innovation campus that leases offices and coworking space.
What are the most unique features of Connecticut’s startup communities?
We have the benefit of being close to New York and Boston with a similarly well-educated population, but have a much lower cost of labor and office/industrial space. Our proximity to these two major technological hubs also allows for ease of fundraising for Connecticut-based startups. It’s just a two hour train ride, rather than a flight across the country.
Connecticut is a big state—is the bulk of the startup activity centered around a couple of hubs, or is it more decentralized?
As is typical in other states, much of the activity is taking place in urban hubs like Stanford, New Haven, and Hartford. But there are signs of life throughout the state. My company, for example, is based in Ivoryton, which is in a relatively rural part of Connecticut. As we’ve been accepting submissions for the CT Entrepreneur Awards, we’ve received nominations from every corner of the state and have been finding out about ventures that we didn’t even know existed. So, there are the logical centers of activity, but great startups growing everywhere.
Are there specific public policies that have enabled innovation or startup growth in Connecticut?
Much of the business-related legislation has been more window dressing than it has been impactful. The one item of note is that CTNext received $90 million in funding from the legislature over the next five years.
Have you had interactions with local or national policymakers?
Yes, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, U.S. Representative Jim Himes and several state legislators have all participated in events around the state. They have also talked with Connecticut startup leaders at roundtables and in one-on-one meetings.
If you had one wishlist item for something policy leaders could do to help your startup ecosystem, what would it be?
Get out of the way. Reduce the bureaucracy. Stop trying to fix problems from the middle.
Let me explain: every year, tweaks are made to the business tax code. Each of those tweaks costs millions of dollars administratively (not to mention the tax itself). No one seems to be asking the question, "Why are we taxing businesses?" If governments need a certain amount of money to operate, it should be their solemn responsibility to collect that money in the most efficient way possible—not creating mammoth bureaucracies. Every cost that a business incurs gets passed on to its customers. Taxing businesses is a very inefficient way to collect taxes and creates a great deal more system cost. Before creating legislation ask, "What are we really trying to solve?"
What is your goal for the next year? The next 5 years?
Over the next few years, I want to pass what I am doing in the ecosystem on to the next generation. Broad engagement is part of how we will create a better and more sustainable ecosystem. It’s typical in startup ecosystems that the people who are involved in the early stages do so on a volunteer basis. The natural evolution is that at some point they get burnt out and walk away, leaving a vacuum behind them with no one to carry the torch. We have been very intentional at the CT Entrepreneurial Event Calendar, the CT Entrepreneurial Mentor Network, and the CT Entrepreneur Awards to involve people who are newly coming into this ecosystem and give them roles and responsibilities to help them build their leadership capabilities and connections within the community. I definitely hope to become obsolete at some point and have someone else take over the work that I’ve been doing.
What are some other startups to watch coming out of Connecticut?
We'll be able to tell you on April 24 when we reveal the VENTURE and ENTREPRENEUR of the YEAR. Until then you can find the list of nominees here. They come from a variety of industries, stages, and geographies. Panels of judges from all over the country are helping us determine the winners.