Former Pfizer scientist proposes innovation hub to spur business

A former Pfizer Inc. scientist is spearheading efforts to form an innovation hub in southeastern Connecticut that would help jump-start business opportunities for local entrepreneurs.

Jean Schaefer, a biologist who formerly developed drugs for Pfizer in Groton, said Tuesday she will file a formal proposal with the state this week to create what would be called the Southeastern Connecticut Innovation Ecosystem. The hub would provide training and expertise to innovative local companies as well as space where entrepreneurs could bounce ideas off one another.

The Department of Economic and Community Development, through the quasi-public Connecticut Innovations Inc. technology investment agency, plans to spend up to $4.8 million this year to develop as many as four innovation hubs across the state. The hubs would assist the growth of companies near Fairfield County, around the cities of Hartford and New Haven and within a broad area from Storrs to New London County.

"If we want Connecticut to be a biosciences leader, we need to make sure the talent does not leave," Schaefer said in an interview at Muddy Waters Café in New London.

Schaefer, who currently runs a consulting business aimed at helping startup companies, said she has assembled a talented board of directors with diverse experience to help launch the innovation hub.

She said her main argument for creating the hub in southeastern Connecticut - perhaps at already established incubators at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point in Groton or at the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut in Waterford - is the region's current lack of an innovation network, She added that the region's economic volatility, given continued layoffs at Pfizer as well as possible cutbacks in defense-related spending, also is an argument for a hub here.

"Volatility brings opportunity," Schaefer said.

Mary Anne Rooke, who runs the Technology Incubation Program at the Avery Point campus, said she is hopeful that Schaefer's group will be able to get state funding for a hub. Each of the state's hubs has a goal of producing 50 start-up companies annually, along with identifying 75 slightly more mature firms that have the potential to grow jobs or revenue by 20 percent over a two-year period.

"I am optimistic that our part of Connecticut will be seriously looked at as a really great location for a hub," Rooke said. "We certainly have a huge talent pool that could be tapped into immediately with all the layoffs at Pfizer."

Rooke said she is not sure, however, whether the state will decide to fund all four hubs in the initial phase of developing a statewide innovation ecosystem. Officials might decide to focus on one or two sites and get them running in the right direction before turning to this part of the state, she said.

Deborah Donovan, economic development director for the SouthEastern Connecticut Enterprise Region, said her group is still discussing whether to file an application to be the lead agency to run a local innovation hub and wouldn't be ready to make such a commitment right now. But she wished Schaefer well in her efforts, and Schaefer said she would welcome SeCTer as a partner should the regional economic-development group decide to sign on to her initiative.

Meanwhile, Schaefer is conducting an anonymous survey of entrepreneurs interested in the idea of an innovation hub. The survey is available at http://svy.mk/ysarLK, and results need to be tabulated by Sunday.

"We want to bring resources here to southeastern Connecticut," she said. "We need it more."

l.howard@theday.com

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