CBIA BizCast: FORGE-ing Startup Success
Starting a business and launching a new product can be a daunting prospect.
From creating a prototype to connecting with manufacturers and suppliers, there is a lot for entrepreneurs and startups to navigate.
That’s where FORGE Connecticut comes in.
“You can think of us as kind of like a dating service, but if it’s for startups, and for manufacturers,” said vice president Adam Rodrigues.
FORGE helps connect innovators with product development assistance, regional manufacturers, and supply chain resources.
“There’s a lot of great innovation coming out of Connecticut,” Rodrigues said.
“There’s over 4,000 manufacturers in Connecticut. So if we can facilitate these connections that’s really the work we’re trying to do here.”
Benefits for Startups
Rodrigues said working with regional suppliers and manufacturers has a number of benefits for startups.
Not only can they see the first run of their production coming off the line, but by building a relationship with the manufacturer, they’re able to make tweaks to designs before they go to production.
“There’s so many different aspects of just becoming any type of company,” he said.
“We’re really focused on how do you take that actual product? How do you design it to be scaled? How do we then work with these regional experts to help you launch that product on the market?”
Rodrigues says FORGE offers workshops, thought leadership pieces, and events to educate startups and to prepare them to engage with manufacturers.
They also help connect them with groups like CONNSTEP, CTNext, and UConn’s Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to help them navigate everything from market research to business planning, and legal help.
“That’s kind of the avenue with FORGE,” he said. “It’s educate and then make that connection process as their product development journey is going.”
FORGE began operating in Connecticut in October.
But the organization originally started in Massachusetts in 2015 out of Greentown Labs.
Greentown is one of the largest clean technology incubators in North America with hundreds of startups working out of one building.
“Most of them have physical components because most clean technology startups, they’re making something physical, whether it be a solar panel or battery storage solution,” Rodrigues said.
They noticed that a lot of those startups assumed they needed to send prototypes to be scaled overseas.
Rodrigues said working with regional manufacturers can help startups avoid things like overseas IP laws, tariffs, costly lead times, and the environmental impact with shipping this outside the U.S.
Expanding to Connecticut
The idea behind Forge was to use the expertise of the more than 7,000 manufacturers in Massachusetts.
“We thought if we could only make these connections between the startups coming out of Greentown and Massachusetts manufacturers, we might be able to see the success rate of these startups rise,” he said.
When it began, FORGE worked exclusively with clean technology startups from Greentown.
But, they eventually expanded its portfolio to work with more than 650 startups.
Then, about three years ago, Rodrigues said several Connecticut startups approached FORGE asking for help connecting with Connecticut manufacturers.
“We said ‘That’s great, but right now our whole network is Massachusetts manufacturers,” said Rodrigues.
He said in order to build up a Connecticut network, they needed funding to operate in the state.
Building a Network
“Some of these startups, they went knocking on the door of the chief manufacturing officer at that time Colin Cooper and said ‘Hey, you know, we want to work with Connecticut manufacturers, how do we get this done?’”
He said Cooper became an advocate, as did current CMO Paul Lavoie.
That helped them get the funding they needed to operate in the state through CTNext and the Manufacturing Innovation Fund.
He says working in Connecticut is a little different than in Massachusetts.
“In Massachusetts—If I need to find startups, and I need to find support systems for startups, you go to Boston,” he said. “It’s right there. Everything is right there.
“In Connecticut, that activity is here but it’s not in one central location.”
Rodrigues is working with organizations like CONNSTEP and CTNext and visiting incubators and universities to build a network.
Rodrigues said FORGE now has a portfolio of more than 60 manufacturers.
“We’re making meaningful welfare connections to the manufacturers and making it easy for them to do the work that we’re doing,” he said.
“If you are a startup that has a physical prototype, your success rate is usually about five to 10%.
“For the startups that we’ve worked with, over 85% of them since 2015 of those 650 are still in operation today.”
For a lot of startups, Rodrigues said a big roadblock to success is funding.
“A lot of these great ideas are starting their journey, but then they hit this kind of valley of death because they don’t have the money,” he said.
To help with that, FORGE awarded $40,000 in product development grants to six startups during its launch party in June.
“What was great is that part of what came along with our funding from the Manufacturing Innovation Fund, and CTNext, is this pocket of money that we can give to some of these great startups to help bridge that gap and get them to that next level.”
Positioned to Grow
Rodrigues said that FORGE is hiring a program director and a program manager to expand their footprint in Connecticut.
”We’re positioned to really get out there and get aggressive with helping these innovators and providing these opportunities for manufacturers in Connecticut,” he said.
Rodrigues said supporting new startups and manufacturers will help grow the state’s population and economy.
“By surrounding them with all these great resources, you’re making a pretty good pitch to stay here in the state,” he said.
“At the same time, you have these new innovative products being made here in Connecticut. That’s great for the economy, too. So it’s really a double win on both.”
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