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New London, Groton groups collaborating in bid for Innovation Places designation

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Spark Makerspace in New London and the CURE Innovation Commons in Groton are collaborating on an effort to have the mouth of the Thames River designated as one of Connecticut's Innovation Places, which would enable the region to develop plans to attract high-growth companies here.

An introductory session to hear about the program will be held at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Harris Building Conference Center, 165 State St. in New London, when the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition holds another session in its New London Roundable Series.

The coalition is one of at least 10 organizations that Hannah Gant, a founder of the Spark collaborative, says is supporting the local Innovation Places initiative.

The program, launched earlier this year by the entrepreneurship group CTNext, offers $50,000 planning grants to come up with initiatives to attract innovative companies to the state. 

"It's about making a place more vibrant, more attractive ... cooler," Gant said.

It's an important consideration, she added, in a region expected to take on thousands of young hires at Electric Boat over the next decade or so.

"What will help make this place more attractive for that talent?" she asked.

If the grant comes through, the Thames River Innovation Place Steering Committee could then hope to snag several hundred thousand dollars of state support out of a total pool of $4.9 million set aside in each of the next five years for implementing improvement plans statewide.

"There are so many resources in the southeastern Connecticut community," said Susan Froshauer, chief executive of Connecticut United for Research Excellence, the statewide organization that runs CURE Commons and advocates for biotech and pharmaceutical interests. "But it was underutilized because of the lack of sufficient places to convene and celebrate innovation."

Other organizations backing the effort are the City of New London, City of Groton, Town of Groton, the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region, Connecticut College, New London Public Schools, the Technology Incubation Program at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point and Pfizer Inc.

Gant said these organizations have banded together rather than competing with one another in the expectation that a united front will make it more likely for the region to win a CTNext grant.

Having CURE and Spark at the forefront of efforts is an acknowledgment that the state wants to see efforts at economic rejuvenation led by the private sector, Gant said.

"It's individuals, not just institutions," Froshauer said. "We need individuals with skills in art and science, engineering and agriculture. ... We want to create surprises."

CURE Commons is a business incubator at a former Pfizer building that launched just this year, while Spark is a membership organization in which artists, craftspeople and entrepreneurs share tools, meeting space, training and equipment in two downtown buildings.

"We are not collaborating as much as we could be," Gant said. "What I have long been interested in is breaking down barriers."

CTNext is encouraging such collaboration by taking on an expanded role this year in identifying key places in the state ripe for a renaissance, focusing especially on growth-stage companies, according to a description of the Innovation Places program.

A letter sent out Monday to several organizations in the area and signed by Gant and Froshauer notes that the application deadline for a planning grant is Sept. 12.

The letter seeks an additional $50,000 in funding commitments to help pay for an economic-development consultancy called the Regenesis Group to help in developing a master plan for the area using its Story of Place method.

"It's the discovery of what makes this place so special and so uniquely itself," Gant said. "It's also about new businesses that could leverage that identity."

She said the Story of Place brainstorming process, which costs about $100,000, is all about seizing on unmet potentials of a locality. 

Gant said it's not about borrowing from other successful places like Portland, Maine, that sometimes elicit comparisons to New London, but about adjusting attitudes and looking toward a future closely linked to a city's special characteristics.

"The idea is to set aside differences and fall in love with commonalities," she said.

To help fund the effort, the local steering committee is starting a crowdfunding campaign.

In addition to money, Gant said the organization will be accepting pledges of different donations that people can offer, such as lawnmowing services and the like.

"If a lot give, that would really differentiate our position with the state," Gant said.

What: Thames River Innovation Place


Phone: (860) 866-4834


Supporting events:

  • Summer Melt, 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Spark, 86 Golden St. in New London, featuring ice cream, music and live glass-melting on the patio.

  • Bill Reed of Regenesis, Sept. 20, will be giving more information about the Story of Place process at a time and location to be determined.


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