Eastern Connecticut is comprised of three counties: New London County to the south, on Long Island Sound, and above it both Tolland County and Windham County, which reach to the Massachusetts border. Rhode Island is to the east of the region. Windham County and towns in Tolland have been dubbed the “Quiet Corner” as it is the most rural region in the state. Many of the towns in all three counties are in the most rural region in the entire Boston-Washington megalopolis, a National Heritage Corridor termed “the Last Green Valley.” Like many rural regions throughout the country, we have suffered from the stagnation or demise of legacy manufacturers. Even the more industrial part of the region (southern New London County) has experienced the decline, for example, a vast reduction in demand over the past decades has negatively impacted Electric Boat, a major defense contractor that manufactures submarines. This has a second-order negative effect on the economy from attrition of their local suppliers. Another example is Pfizer’s relocation of a large research unit to Massachusetts.
State economic development agents consider the growth and employment potential of small and medium-sized technology and manufacturing enterprises (SMEs) as essential to the viability of the regional economy. Even though many eastern Connecticut SMEs had strong traditional skills, processes, or products, many have become obsolete by rapid advances in technology. Examples include shifts from electro-mechanical to electronic technologies or the emergence of smart sensors combined with wireless networks. Their lack of in-house R&D capabilities and inability to procure the human and financial resources required to adopt new technologies are also major barriers to their competitiveness. Other barriers include the rapid emergence of new business and manufacturing processes and insufficient high-tech workforce training (a recent federal program will help address the latter; see Resources section). Thus, many SMEs in the region are stagnating from the lack of updated or new products. To address this innovation gap, SMEs are seeking partnerships with external research organizations. Meanwhile, apart from research and teaching, University of Connecticut (UConn) has traditionally stressed strategic alliances with larger firms who are able to absorb advanced technologies and who can provide reciprocal financial support. On the other hand, UConn’s technology transfer efforts have traditionally focused on licensing and support of startups. As a result, engagement with SMEs is a timely new opportunity for UConn in its efforts to help the regional economy. A number of independent research results show that collaborations with research entities, particularly universities, have been a critical source of innovation and development of new products and services for tech and manufacturing SMEs. They are the focus of this proposal because they are known to be critical to economic growth and yet are under-served. UConn is uniquely able in our region to create networks of large, small, and now medium businesses with strong connections to our knowledge base to foster innovation and fuel economic growth.
The core of our program is to create an innovation network to drive economic development in the three counties. The Quiet Corner Innovation Cluster (QCIC) will include a new Proof of Concept Center (POCC) and leverage and expand UConn’s existing office of commercialization and extensive R&D capabilities to co-develop new products and services with rural SMEs. The hub for the QCIC will be UConn, whose main campus is centrally-located within the three counties.
Connecticut Innovations (CI) and an alliance of small and medium tech/manufacturing enterprises have pledged to partner in this initiative. The partnership with CI provides regionally-focused financial and business support. QCIC will also leverage the resources of UConn’s Tech Park and its inaugural building, the Innovation Partnership Building (IPB), which is dedicated to establishing and maintaining strong industry partnerships and will house state-of-the-art technology. Several of the School of Engineering’s Centers of Excellence will move into the IPB, and these Centers will be excellent resources for the regional SMEs working with the QCIC. Due to the importance of QCIC to the region, CI pledges $500k in matching funds to the requested EDA funding and UConn pledges $500k in equipment funding plus sufficient space in the IPB for the POCC. A key outcome metric of the QCIC is a projected cumulative addition of almost 2,500 direct jobs to the Connecticut economy, by 5 years after grant end.