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Groton — Nearly 50 entrepreneurs from as far away as Stamford met Thursday at an office building on Bridge Street to start envisioning what a startup-business community would look like in southeastern Connecticut.
The turnout, which also included at least one large company from Rhode Island, was encouraging to economic leaders in the region who have long sought to reverse some of the brain drain created over the past decade by major job losses at the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc.
But it also pleased Susan Froshauer, who, as executive director of the bioscience network Connecticut United for Research Excellence, is in the midst of launching a new incubator space at the Pfizer campus that will be known as the CURE Innovation Commons.
"I think it's great energy," Froshauer said. "Critical mass is important."
"Very positive," added Tony Sheridan, chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut. "There's a lot of good energy from people who have successful track records."
The meeting at the engineering firm Applied Physical Sciences invited science and technology start-ups interested in putting down roots in southeastern Connecticut. Several spaces for both emerging companies and growing firms will be opening up in the next few months at a 24,000-square-foot building that Pfizer has promised to donate to CURE on its campus, and Froshauer said the meeting should help generate interest for the kind of community she hopes to foster there.
"There's not a whole lot of lab space of this ilk in Connecticut," she said.
The meeting, part of an initiative called the Whiteboard Startup Roadshow, was a collaboration among CURE, the Chamber of Commerce, the economic development agency Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region and Independent Software of New Haven, headed by panelist Derek Koch. Other members of the panel discussion were Kevin Logan, chief executive of Stonington-based MACSEA Ltd. and Body Biolytics; Bob Gorman, founder of Applied Physical Sciences Corp.; and Froshauer, a former Pfizer scientist.
Koch, who has helped spearhead an entrepreneurial movement in the New Haven area, said the key to building a good atmosphere for startups is in generating open discussions among like-minded people.
"It's like building planks out over the ice," he said. "It starts with community building. Community is the master strategy."
Gorman, however, pointed out that openness might work in a scientific framework, but it is more difficult to engender when working in sensitive areas such as the defense field.
Logan, founder of the software company MACSEA, expressed another concern, saying one of his difficulties in making a pivot toward wearable health monitors in a new business called Body Biolytics is in being nimble enough to make quick moves in new directions.
"It's the speed of light, and if you can't move quickly you are going to be pre-empted," he said.
Brenda Lewis, principal of the mobile-marketing firm Transactions Marketing Inc. in Greenwich, said before the meeting that she was glad to see southeastern Connecticut opening up valuable space for startups. She said the past year has seen a precipitous decline in venture-capital support for early-stage startups, indicating that many investors were becoming risk-averse.
George Mathanool, chairman of the Groton Economic Development Commission, said he was glad to see a grass-roots effort building around the Pfizer campus to open up discussions about startups and biotech. While the region is well known for defense- and pharmaceutical-related businesses, he said, the region needs to be identified by other clusters as well.
"It creates a viral atmosphere in southeastern Connecticut," Mathanool said.