Building an Innovation Ecosystem Where Everyone Can Thrive

'We have leaders who believe in Connecticut, we have the resources, and we have the talent'

Onyeka Obiocha, left, executive director of CTNext, chats with Cody Simms of MCJ Collective during the Future Climate Venture Studio showcase in the Innovation Partnership Building on April 20, 2023.

Onyeka Obiocha, left, executive director of CTNext, chats with Cody Simms of MCJ Collective during the Future Climate Venture Studio showcase in the Innovation Partnership Building on April 20, 2023. (Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)

It’s said that from little acorns, mighty oaks grow.

At UConn, little acorns planted more than a decade ago with a new program to promote student entrepreneurship found such fertile soil that one of its first participants, Onyeka Obiocha ’12 (CLAS), is now a leader in advancing innovation and economic inclusivity across Connecticut.

Obiocha participated in the inaugural Innovation Quest in 2012 and went on to launch a career built on innovation, entrepreneurship, and mentorship. In January 2022, he was appointed executive director of CTNext.

A quasi-public agency that invests in the creation and success of equitable, sustainable, and prosperous companies and jobs for the people of Connecticut, CTNext partners with UConn and other entities to develop programs and funding that support tech-and innovation-based startups and early-stage Connecticut businesses.

Working closely with UConn President Radenka Maric, a member of CTNext’s Higher Education Entrepreneurship Advisory Committee, Obiocha and his team are working to spread the word to fellow UConn alumni and others who want to make their entrepreneurial dreams a reality in Connecticut.

“Success has so many shapes and forms and comes to our students and alumni in many ways. He has taken what he learned at UConn and started businesses, engaged people in our state’s distressed communities, and has also given them tools for success,” Maric says of Obiocha.

As of 2022, CTNext has already invested more than $6.1 million in UConn innovation-driven initiatives, including UConn Stamford’s Data Science Initiative and the Third Bridge grant program in the School of Engineering.

A priority for CTNext under Obiocha’s leadership: ensuring Connecticut’s entrepreneurial landscape is economically inclusive and nationally competitive by finding and fostering untapped and overlooked opportunity across industries.

Just this year, CTNext played a key role shepherding the development of the first-ever national partnership between UConn and Yale through the Quantum-CT project. A complex, cross-sector initiative composed of a broad coalition of public, private, and state officials, Quantum-CT aims to establish Connecticut as a national leader in quantum science and technologies. The National Science Foundation awarded Quantum-CT a $1 million development award to kick-start the collaboration.

Maric, Obiocha, and others also worked closely with leaders of R/GA Ventures — a leading venture studio operator and early-stage investor — to launch the Future Climate Venture Studio.

The Studio works to identify and accelerate the growth of companies dedicated to combating climate change and fostering sustainability, serving startups at different stages of growth with the guidance and resources needed to reach the next steps.

“Moving forward, we’re looking at how we can not only continue to provide funding, but also social capital,” he says. “In what other ways can we work with UConn to broaden the opportunity for more people, and bring other private and public institutions into the mix as well?”

The Entrepreneurship Bug

Originally an aspiring accountant, Obiocha switched his focus at UConn to economics and in his second year, joined his roommate at a meeting of an on-campus economics club on a whim. There, Obiocha met a fellow student who hoped to develop a way to support charities while shopping online.

“I always knew I liked business and I liked helping people, and this was interesting to me because it combined them,” Obiocha says. “I joined the startup and that’s when I got the entrepreneurship bug — particularly in social entrepreneurship, the idea that you can not only maximize your profit, but also maximize the positive effects on the people that you work with and on the planet as a whole.”

He became part of the four-member Sharelogical LLC team. The judges of the first UConn Innovation Quest competition originally anticipated only three winners, but were so impressed by the team that they created a special $5,000 award specifically to support its work.

After graduation, Obiocha launched a micro-consignment economic development initiative through the Social Entrepreneur Corps in Cape Town, South Africa. He later returned to Connecticut to lead a corporate social responsibility program for a food technology startup in Hartford. In 2013, Obiocha co-founded A Happy Life, a coffee-roasting company and coffee shop in New Haven aimed at offering fair-wage coffee with a mission of creating a happier world that gained kudos from the National Retail Federation and the Connecticut General Assembly.

Obiocha sold the business three years later upon being named a Social Entrepreneurship Fellow at the Yale Center for Business and the Environment. He was later named the first Director of Innovation at Yale’s Dwight Hall, the Center for Public Service and Social Justice, and in 2017 became a founding employee and, later, managing director of the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale.

Now as executive director of CTNext, Obiocha has big plans for the Nutmeg State. “We have leaders who believe in Connecticut, we have the resources, and we have the talent. If we continue investing in the groundbreaking businesses shaping the future of our communities, we can build up Connecticut into the next epicenter of innovation,” he says.

A Husky Forever

Despite his Yale connections, Obiocha has remained a loyal Husky and an ardent fan of UConn’s basketball teams.

“I am so proud that he is a Husky,” says Maric. “He is someone who brings people together, and we all share the same belief that education and entrepreneurship must be available to all, and that none are left without opportunities to fulfill their potential.”

Like Maric and others at UConn, Obiocha wants to ensure the kind of economic inclusivity that supports talented people from all walks of life and knocks down barriers that might otherwise have blocked their aspirations.

For Obiocha and CTNext, this has taken shape in the organization’s startup supports, such as their Talent Bridge Program, which funds and connects high-growth companies with soon-to-be graduates; Entrepreneur Innovation Awards, a pitch competition and showcase for Connecticut’s most innovative new companies; and Community Micro-Grants, which aim to support events, projects, and organizations that bolster Connecticut’s entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem.

Obiocha hopes Connecticut’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem serves not only those who currently live in the state but also attracts former residents — including UConn alumni — back to launch businesses.

“For entrepreneurs, it’s often difficult to find and understand what resources are available to you, and it’s true that Connecticut has not always had the most robust supports to help these great ideas thrive. That’s changing,” Obiocha says. “We’re doing such exciting things in Connecticut and you can be in on the ground floor in building an environment and ecosystem in which everyone can thrive.”