Are You Smarter than a High School Student?



Barb Lesh
Program Associate, Small Business Innovation
Connecticut Innovations

Are you smarter than a high school student? Let’s find out. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to design an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) to address precision agriculture. Stumped?

Believe it or not, that was the topic of this year’s Real World Design Challenge (RWDC), an annual competition that provides high school students the opportunity to work on STEM challenges in a team environment.

Amity Team

Amity High School’s RWDC team

We’ve all heard that experience is the best teacher, and because of the RWDC, 14-18 year-olds from around the state recently had an opportunity to gain valuable STEM experience. And by the way, as you can see from the challenge topic, these aren’t just theoretical problems or classroom case studies. These are assignments that deal with actual problems that our leading industries face.

These students are the innovators of tomorrow, and they’re getting a leg up on their peers by participating. They aren’t going in blind, either. The program connects high school teams with industry mentors who provide their time and engineering expertise so students can learn from the best.

But what’s the big deal about STEM? According to the National Science Foundation (NSF):

“In the 21st century, scientific and technological innovations have become increasingly important as we face the benefits and challenges of both globalization and a knowledge-based economy. To succeed in this new information-based and highly technological society, students need to develop their capabilities in STEM to levels much beyond what was considered acceptable in the past.”

No small feat.

If Connecticut wants to maintain a competitive place in global leadership, it’s important to engage our best and brightest students in the STEM fields. And if you think that STEM is just for geeks and eggheads, consider the role of technology in our daily lives, not to mention in today’s workplace. As occupations continue to be supported by an increasingly complex technological environment, STEM knowledge and skills become even more important across the entire workforce.

RWDC is a great program and Connecticut Innovations is proud to support it because we believe in the value of STEM education. The students got great experience, the industry got great ideas, both sides began great relationships, and CI got the opportunity to encourage young innovators and foster excitement in STEM projects, planting the seeds for a great future pipeline.

The RWDC has really caught on in the state, and students are very excited about getting in on it. One student from East Hartford High School said:

“If you had asked me a year ago, I never would have thought I would be participating in a competition like this. Even though we didn’t win, I am so proud of what we accomplished and can’t wait to participate again next year.”

Seed planted.

This year, four teams participated in the state competition: Amity Regional High School, Academy of Information Technology and Engineering in Stamford, East Hartford High School and Xavier High School in Middletown. Connecticut Innovations and CT Women’s Education and Legal Fund (CWEALF) provided administrative and technical support, and the corporate sponsor, Pratt and Whitney, supplied more than ten mentors and two judges to guide the teams. Kudos to all the participants and congratulations to Amity Aviation-1, Amity Regional High School’s team, who came away with first place and a crack at the national championship!

Check out Amity’s winning design here:

How What You’re Eating (or Not Eating) Can Affect Your Business’ Bottom Line



Roberta Rossi
Senior Program Associate, Small Business Innovation
Connecticut Innovations

*This is part 2 in Roberta’s series on wellness that we will be releasing periodically over the next several weeks. Stay tuned!

In the fast-paced world of an entrepreneur, eating properly can seem like a luxury rather than a necessity. You’re a one-man-band or, even if you have a small team, it still feels like you are most of the time. You wear many hats and work long days. There is no such thing as 9-to-5. Think about how many hours you log in a week – 60? 80? 100? It’s easy to see how proper nutrition can get put on the back-burner.

But hold on, that doesn’t mean you should be using that as an excuse. Taking the time to eat (and eat well) will increase your productivity and in turn will help your company’s (not to mention your own) bottom line. Simply put, you can’t afford to skip meals or eat poorly if you want to be successful.Fries

Let’s look at it scientifically. Your brain requires blood glucose (or sugar) as well as protein in order to work. If you’re skipping meals, guess what? You don’t get that “brain food.” Without it, you’ll have less energy, won’t be able to think as clearly and will be less able to do your job. ‘Bye ‘bye productivity.

So, yes, eating is important.

But what exactly are you feeding your body? If you’re like a lot of entrepreneurs, it’s safe to assume that it’s a lot of fast (and processed) food. Eating this way is quick and easy, but it’s a habit you should try and break before you’re as round as that doughnut you ate this morning.

The entrepreneurial  lifestyle certainly lends itself to a poor diet. Here are some of the most common mistakes that you should avoid.

  1. Consuming too much sugar

    Throughout the day, what are you reaching for to keep you going? A soda? An energy drink? A coffee (with sugar)?  Maybe you’re more of a Danish or cinnamon bun type. Sure, all of these things will give you a temporary jolt, but in reality, all it leads you to is peaks and valleys in your energy level. Oh, and extra calories that will translate into fat. So how do you get and stay “up?” The real keys to high energy are enough sleep at night, breakfast in the morning and these tips.

  2. Eating “quick meals”

    As I’ve already said, entrepreneurs are busy people. Who has time to make a proper meal all the time, right? Thinking this way makes it easy to fall into the trap of running out and grabbing fast food or opening up a bag of chips to keep your hunger at bay. To avoid these situations, remember the 3 P’s: plan, prep, and pack. Dedicate time to planning your lunches (and dinners if you’re working late). If you can’t give yourself a little extra time in the morning, plan your meals for the entire week on Saturday or Sunday. Spend a half hour prepping and packing them so that you can grab one on your way out the door in the morning. Small investment of time now, big dividends over the long haul in your work, your wallet, and your waistline.

  3. Eating unhealthily all together
    I’m of the opinion (if not always the practice…) that we should all strive to follow a natural diet. This means whole foods closest to their natural state – unprocessed, unrefined and unmanufactured. Try what is known as a “rainbow diet“ of multicolored vegetables, whole grains, fruits, fresh nuts and seeds. If you’re not a vegetarian, occasional low fat organic animal sources will lend variety and satisfaction.

When shopping, remember this simple trick to save your health and your time: shop at the grocery store’s perimeters and skip the middle rows. That’s where the processed food is.

And remember to drink lots of clean, filtered water to keep your cells hydrated and to help your body rid itself of toxins naturally.

All of that being said, nobody’s perfect, so if your nutritional habits sometimes fall short, don’t worry. It’s not such a bad thing if your body still remembers how to process an éclair or doughnut every once in awhile. No explaining, no complaining!

Do you have any other health tips? How do you keep your eating habits on track? Let us know in the comments!

Why You Should Get FANCY before You Ask for Money for Your Business



Roberta Rossi
Senior Program Associate, Small Business Innovation
Connecticut Innovations

So, you want to start a company and are looking for capital to get things going. Welcome to the joys of entrepreneurship! Before you do anything, here’s my advice (and I’ll keep it simple): Get FANCY. Confused? Let me explain.

My colleague Merrie London and I frequently have the opportunity to meet or talk to inventors and entrepreneurs that are eager to get their ideas realized and are looking for funding. One of the things that repeatedly surprises us is the lack of preparation prior to setting up shop or asking for money. Because of this, Merrie came up with a very clever acronym to help budding business owners prepare for entrepreneurial pursuits. She tells them to get FANCY.

The advice is so simple and so practical that it tickles my fancy, so I thought I’d pass it along. Here’s what it means:

We often see inventors who have myriad ideas they want to implement all at once. Creativity and enthusiasm are great, but a clear vision and the ability to bring that vision to fruition trumps split energies and unfinished projects. Sure, multiple income streams are the goal in more mature companies, but focusing on getting the first one up-and-running will better position you to diversify successfully. Even multi-tasking has come under fire in the past few years. Douglas Merrill, former CIO and Vice President of Google, says multi-tasking just doesn’t work. Heck, it can even be harmful to your health. So, if multi-tasking isn’t effective and can be bad for your health, imagine the mayhem that can happen if you’re trying to start multiple businesses or product lines at the same time! Focus on one idea and see it through before moving on to the next one. I promise you’ll see better results!

Advisory Board:
Okay – these parts aren’t in chronological order, but if I said “Get FNCAY” would that make any sense?

Seriously. Let’s move on.

Have you ever heard of the benefit of someone’s experience? I know, everybody’s perspective is different, but including the viewpoints of seasoned veterans from the industry or a related field can save you a lot of rookie headaches. Look – it can be lonely at the top, so building trust in a group that provides ongoing, thoughtful guidance can help on so many levels. Great advisory board members can provide guidance, consistency, contacts, longevity and expertise in their respective fields, as well as the occasional cheerleading or kick in the pants that new business owners can so often use. Before you assemble your board, ask yourself why and to what end? If you’re not quite sure how to go about building an advisory board, consider these great tips.

These next 2 pieces go hand-in-hand.

Need (An Identified and Verified Need for Your Idea) and Customers to Purchase It

You might think your idea is the slickest thing since olive oil. In fact, you may be so sure that everyone will be as excited as you are about it that you’re ready to invest your life savings to get started. You might even have recruited a team, found a space to do business, and have a nest egg that you’re willing to tap. Hold on – just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should! Is there a compelling need for your product or service? Are you sure? How have you checked? Even if a need exists, if nobody cares enough or is willing to pay enough to address that need, your time, money, heart, and whatever else you’ve invested can disappear pretty quickly.  It’s so important to make sure you have customers willing to pay enough for what you’re selling to make it profitable. And while I’m on the subject, don’t ask if people like the idea – affirmations are cheap. Ask if they would buy the product or service or even how much they’d be willing to pay for it. If you’re not sure how to go about testing the waters, no worries. It just so happens that we have two very handy evaluation tools to help you sort things out: Technology Assessments aka Go/No Go Reports and Market Assessment Reports. Before you raid your rainy day or retirement fund, check them out!

Guess what? You’re the final piece of this FANCY pie. You have the inspiration, but are you willing to supply the motivation, dedication and perspiration necessary to start and grow a business? Without them, the business won’t get off the ground, regardless of how many other resources are available.

I’m betting that you are. And remember – we want you to succeed. If you’re an innovative small company in Connecticut, bring us your ideas and we’ll help you get down to business. FANCY that!

Do you have any tips? Share them with us in the comments!

Why Building the Core Team at a Startup Is like Picking Sides for a Kickball Game

Blog Photo


Douglas J. Roth
Senior Investment Associate
Connecticut Innovations

Investors in early-stage companies will always tell you the most important attribute they invest in is the team.
Founders at successful companies will similarly say that their job is far easier when they have a core team around them that they trust, can rely on to deliver results, and are all pulling in the same direction towards success. So, if assembling an investable, highly functioning team is paramount to the success of the venture, how can an entrepreneur build such a team? One need only look to the school playground for valuable lessons.

Photo Credit: Boise Weekly

Photo Credit: Boise Weekly

The most popular activity at recess, back when I was in 5th and 6th grades, was kickball – essentially baseball, but the “batter” would kick a red inflatable rubber ball similar in size to a soccer ball. We didn’t have set teams, so choosing sides each day generally went something like this: The two kids that went to get the ball and plastic bases from Mr. Kramer, the gym teacher, were the designated captains. A quick “Rocks-Paper-Scissors” would determine who got to choose first, and then the captains would alternate picking players.

Inevitably, the first pick would be Chris. This kid could kick a home run over the fence and across Oakland Avenue regardless of what was pitched to him. Really the only question was how many runners would be on base when Chris was up. The second pick would typically be Bobby, a solid hitter and the best first baseman in school. The next several selections in the kickball draft alternated between the kids everyone knew could either play in the outfield or were “Gold Glove” infielders. Always chosen last were Scott, Robert, and Dean – kids you would do anything to avoid having on your team. It was better to have second base empty than to rely on one of these kids. I know, I know, we were cruel, but hey, this was kickball and you wanted to win.

Now imagine your father gets a job in another town. On the first day at your new school, you’re one of the two captains choosing a kickball team. You have to choose players among kids you have never met and know nothing about. The other captain is good friends with all the best players. What are the chances you’ll end up with a “Chris” that can kick home runs or a “Bobby” to play first base? You’re likely to end up with Scott, Robert, and Dean manning your infield and a horrible first day at your new school.

The most successful entrepreneurs build their teams with folks they already know. A few of these folks are ready, willing, and able to make the leap and be part of the founding team. Others are holding down day jobs, helping out when they can, and prepared to jump in as soon as funding is secured. Entrepreneurs that make early hires from within their network clearly learned a lesson or two on the playground. They recognize the importance of building a core team from individuals that they know, trust, and have previously worked with.

kickball-teamEvery startup is cash strapped, resource constrained, and time limited. There are too many things that need to get done. All the early employees need to wear multiple hats and work across functional areas. Regardless of one’s title, nearly everyone also contributes to the sales and fundraising efforts. It is the core team that likely makes up the entrepreneurs direct reports. It is the core team that one must rely on to advance all the different parts of the company’s development. It is the core team that must be trusted in front of prospective customers or investors. It is the core team that will be hiring, firing, and building the various departments that fuel the company’s early growth. It is the core team that will be working nights and weekends together and nearly become family. Do you really want to choose your work family from resumes sent in from Indeed or Monster? That’s like choosing kickball players at a new school. Good luck with that…

All young companies will inevitably be faced with unexpected setbacks, whether it’s cash running out, product development delays, lack of market adoption, or, more than likely, all of the above plus some others. This is when the core team will be tested. This is not the time for entrepreneurs and the core team to be figuring out how to work together or how they interact under duress. By hiring known quantities – people from your network that you trust – an entrepreneur can be confident they have the right team to get through both the good times and the bad.

Back in 5th and 6th grades, a kickball victory was determined by whichever team was leading when the bell rang to end recess. Weather permitting, we would all be out on the playground again the next day choosing teams and playing another game. The outcome may have changed from day-to-day, but the core teams remained fairly similar, as the captains selected players they knew could perform. A startup victory can also sometimes be determined by a bell – the ringing of the opening bell at the NYSE or NASDAQ. The more important similarity, however, is that there are serial entrepreneurs that will re-form a core team that looks awfully familiar to their previous venture. Although the outcome may be different, the benefits of working together with a familiar team are well known to these repeat entrepreneurs. This is a lesson well-worth considering by first-time entrepreneurs.

What do you think, should you build your team with people you know?

This was originally posted on Doug’s personal blog.

Hello? Is Anyone There? 5 Ways You Can Improve Your Customer Service



Tamyra Davis
Intake Specialist
Connecticut Innovations

In an age of text messages, emails and automated phone systems, it would appear to most that the days of a live person answering a phone is an antiquated practice. Not so fast!

In your personal life, you may prefer these more convenient methods of communication, but in business, nothing is less convenient to a customer than an impersonal phone tree or a generic email account with no one on the other end.Phone

No matter the industry, one of the best ways to keep customers coming back is through excellent customer service. Think about the experiences that you’ve had as a customer. How many times have you picked up the phone to ask a simple question about a bill or a service only to be prompted numerous times to various automated systems that have you feeling like you’re stuck on a merry-go-round with no way to get off?

Although there are benefits in making some tasks automated to speed up the process for a customer, there should always be an option to speak to a real human being, and that option shouldn’t be buried at the end of your automated prompts. It should be the first option for all callers.

At Connecticut Innovations, we’ve put a strong focus on customer service. That’s precisely why I was brought on. We have multiple departments and depending on a customer’s specific needs, who they need to talk to can be very different.

We wanted to stop the merry-go-round and allow all prospective clients to speak to one person to answer their inquires directly. That person is me!

When you call that number at the bottom of our website, I won’t just refer you to another phone number, email address or website. I ensure that you have a direct contact person who is expecting to hear from you and I provide that contact with all the pertinent information that you already gave to me so that you don’t have to start the process all over again. This type of hands-on customer service can only benefit your organization too.

High-tech companies can get mired in the latest and greatest technology and lose sight of the benefits of human interaction with their customers. Automated systems are great, but here are some helpful hints to improve your customer’s experience:

  1. If you’re using an automated greeting, don’t make the customer wait. The first option should always be for the caller to be connected with a person.
  2. Narrow down the number of options a caller has. Too many options confuse and frustrate the customer.
  3. Always ensure that voicemail greetings are up-to-date and clear. Nothing is more irritating to a customer than an outdated voicemail message. Will they ever get a call back? Does this person even check their messages?
  4. Make sure there is always someone the customer can talk to. For time-sensitive issues, there should be an option to opt out of leaving a voicemail message to speak to a live person.
  5. Thank the customer. For example, Thank you for calling XYZ Business, You have reached Employee Name. I am unavailable at this time. If you need immediate assistance you may dial xxx and someone will assist you, otherwise leave your name, telephone number and a detailed message and I will return your call. Once again, thank you for calling and have a great day.

Your customers will appreciate that you care about their call. Your commitment to serving them to the best of your ability will go a long way toward helping to increase sales or, at the very least, improving your reputation.

What customer service tips do you use in your organization? Share your thoughts with us!

Want to get in touch with me? Call me at 860.258.7858.

How Steve Jobs and Oprah Used Wellness to Achieve Success



Roberta Rossi
Senior Program Associate, Small Business Innovation
Connecticut Innovations

This is part 1 in a series on wellness that we will be releasing periodically over the next several weeks. Stay tuned!

As a member of the small business community, you know there’s no dearth of business tips, strategies, tools and advice to help you start and grow a business. You probably also know that success takes more than business acumen.

You’re smart, enterprising and busier than a bee on steroids, so you’re probably an expert at burning the candle at both ends. Do you ever consider what that can do to your bottom line? If you’re not paying attention to your own well-being, chances are your company’s health could also slip.

With lifestyles, sleep cycles, environmental factors, attitude adjustments, food choices, and other stressors added to your business activities, it’s no wonder well-being often gets put on the back burner!

So, does your business plan include these line items?

  • Breathing
  • Good Nutrition
  • Regular Movement
  • Enough Sleep
  • Resting Your Mind
  • Appreciation

If not, you might want to add them in, because a healthy you bodes well for a healthy business.

Like success, achieving well-being is a journey, but like any journey, it helps to have a roadmap with some planned routes. Often a good way to get to where you want to go is following the directions (like in grant writing, but I digress..!) Can you choose to deviate? Sure. The departures might help you find a route that you enjoy even more, or they might help you realize you may want to choose a different path. No problem – there is no wrong choice. Every one you make will provide you with feedback on whether to continue in the direction you’re going, or to head in another direction. Not to worry. With the right tools and your destination in mind, you can always find your way.

So, with that said, let’s begin the trek to well-being today.

Step 1: Breathing

Breath awareness is one of the most overlooked and underrated paths to wellness. Deep, mindful breathing does wonders to re-oxygenate and cleanse not only your body, but also your mind and outlook. Make it a priority to incorporate at least 15 minutes of breath work into your day. Yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, or simple focused breathing are all good activities to strengthen your breath awareness, nourish you on many levels and accelerate your journey to wellness. You can take a class or even teach yourself using some great tips from this article.

But don’t just listen to me. Consider that Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Evan Williams (co-founder of Twitter), Jeff Weiner (CEO of LinkedIn) and Russell Simmons (co-founder of Def Jam Records) are among the many successful entrepreneurs who swear by yoga as a breathing exercise. In fact, Jobs’ last gift to those who attended his memorial service was a copy of “Autobiography of a Yogi,” a book on the practice of Kriya Yoga.

If some of the greatest entrepreneurial minds in the world have realized the potential of breath work, it’s got to be worth a try, right?

Have you done any breath work before? If so, has it worked for you?

Government: Risk-Taker, Early Investor and Catalyst for Innovation



Claire Leonardi
Connecticut Innovations

“Have you ever asked yourselves why it is that companies – the really cool companies; the innovative ones, the creative ‘new economy’ type companies: Apple, Google, Facebook are coming out of one particular country – the United States of America?”

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Where are the European Googles? What’s the secret to the American business model that is spawning all of these hugely successful companies?

Economist Mariana Mazzucato addressed this topic in a TED Talk and I found her answer absolutely fascinating.

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

In the U.S., she said, the role of government in business is more active than elsewhere in the world. American governments are risk-takers and market-shapers. This is why we have a leg up on other countries.

Surprised? You’re not alone. Government often carries the stigma of being “in the way.” The State is said to “slow progress.” Many argue that it should be there only to patch holes and plug leaks when things go wrong because that is what it’s best at. Mazzucato has researched this at length and even has a book on the subject.

She argues that American government is an important cog in the innovation engine because it’s there for businesses when they need it most. When products or ideas are in their most infant stages, it’s often government funding that boosts the innovation to the next level. It takes necessary risks.

Some of the greatest achievements in technology, medicine and energy in the last 100 years have been government funded. Things like:

  • The internet
  • GPS
  • Nuclear power
  • Microprocessors
  • RAM memory
  • Hard disk drives
  • Liquid crystal displays (LCD screens)
  • Lithium batteries
  • Cellular networks
  • Renewable energy (solar, wind)
  • Countless pharmaceuticals
  • The Human Genome Project

Google, Apple, Compaq and Intel have all been helped along by government in the early stages of their development. These are the companies that have produced some of the greatest examples of innovation that our world has ever seen. Without American government serving the role that it does, they might have never existed.

That’s huge.

The point here is not to argue about what government’s role should be, because, as you might imagine, that is another subject entirely. But instead, realize the importance of the role that government already plays in American business as a risk-taker, early investor and catalyst for innovation.

I know I do. I see it every day.

Watch Mazzucato’s TED Talk: