Bill Kenney of CT Entrepreneur Awards on Breaking Down Silos

July 26, 2017

9:20 am

Bill Kenney, founder of the CT Entrepreneurial Event Calendar, CT Entrepreneurial Mentor Cooperative, and CT Entrepreneur Awards (Connecticut), is putting his all into making Connecticut into a startup hub. By launching three initiatives he is working hard to break down silos and bring everyone together towards a common goal.

This time for the #StartupsEverywhere, series, he talks with me about launching a collaborative effort to break down silos that are happening in the Connecticut ecosystem, his community initiatives, challenges faced in the state, and launching a startup.

Bill Kenney is the founder of The CT Entrepreneurial Event Calendar, The CT Entrepreneurial Mentor Cooperative, and The CT Entrepreneur Awards, as well as the startup Test My Pitch. 

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.

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.

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.

What is your long term goal?

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.

Read more about ecosystems around the country here at Tech.Co

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Emma Peck is a policy analyst at Engine, a nonprofit that supports the growth of technology entrepreneurship through economic research, policy analysis and advocacy on local and national issues.