Tag Archives: Westport Innovation Hub

“Abacus”: Academy Award Campaign Starts Here

Next month, the eyes of Westport will focus on Justin Paul. The 2003 Staples High School graduate/songwriting wunderkid could win his 2nd consecutive Academy Award — this time for best original song (“This Is Me,” from “The Greatest Showman”).

Most Westporters will not be as excited by the Best Documentary Feature category.

But most Westporters are not Erin Owens.

Erin Owens

She’s a high-ranking executive with PBS Distribution. Part of her job involves promoting Oscar nominees to the people who matter most: the 7,000 voters.

Right now she’s working on “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.”

And she’s doing it right here in Saugatuck.

“Abacus” tells the story of the tiny, family-owned Chinatown community bank that — because it was “small enough to jail, not too big to fail” — became the only financial institution to be prosecuted after the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.

Competition is tough. PBS’ “Abacus” goes up against 4 other documentaries. Two are distributed by Netflix. They spend a lot more money.

But Owens is happy to battle the big boys. (Interestingly, “Abacus” director Steve James also directed “Hoop Dreams,” a film about overcoming great odds.)

So she’s sending James to New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco for promotional events. She’s also devising many other ways to make sure that the independent film’s compelling story gets in front of the folks who count.

Owens and her husband Mark Kirby moved to Westport 3 years ago. She worked with Long Shot Factory, a distribution and consulting company specializing in documentary ad and educational campaigns.

She particularly enjoyed her PBS projects. Last January, she began working full-time, in-house with them.

It’s a short walk from her home in Saugatuck to Westport Innovative Hub — the popular co-working space on Ketchum Street.

Owens’ 2 partners work remotely too — from Woodstock, New York and North Carolina. Together, they’re pushing “Abacus” as hard and far as they can.

This is not Owens’ first Academy Award race. She spearheaded “Waste Land” in 2010 and “Hell and Back Again” in 2011, and worked on 5 other campaigns.

Voting takes place February 20-27. The Oscars ceremony is March 4.

Justin Paul may grab the headlines the morning after.

But don’t count out “Abacus.”

(“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is available for free on Amazon Prime, and by clicking here.) 

Saugatuck: A Hub For Innovation

Howard Steinberg is a serial entrepreneur.

He started Source Marketing here in 1989. He sold his majority stake 9 years later, then created dLife — a multimedia diabetes education platform.

He rented office space all over town and near the train station. But after stepping down from dLife a year and a half ago to tackle new projects, his work environment changed.

He saw people at coffee and lunches. Yet his home office felt isolating and uninspiring.

Howard Steinberg, at 20 Ketchum Street.

Howard Steinberg, at 20 Ketchum Street.

Westport is filled with solo entrepreneurs and tiny companies operating out of basements and spare bedrooms. When Howard saw MadisonMott — the cutting-edge branding, advertising, digital and social media agency in Saugatuck — and realized there was 5,000 square feet of vacant space next door, his newest venture was born.

Westport Innovation Hub opens officially on September 1, but members begin working there this week.

Or — to be more precise — they “co-work” there.

The Hub is a place where creative people — entrepreneurs, investors and early stage businesses — can work on their own projects. But at the same time they support each other and share ideas. They may share capital too. 

“Ideas will percolate. Things will emerge organically,” Howard says.

The organic percolation takes place in a wide-open, inviting workspace. Westporter David Murray designed yin-and-yang-shaped desks. They’re a far cry from the right-angles seen in offices for the last century — and they’ll go a long way to promote collaboration.

So will the kitchen/coffee bar, with its funky countertop.

Westport Innovation HubThe Hub also features a videoconference room, plus another conference area with a bluestone slab from Gault as its tabletop. (Sam Gault owns the space, and has been a very supportive landlord.)

Monthly fees range from $600 to $1,500, depending on the type of workstation. High-speed internet, cable, printers, copiers, conference rooms — and of course coffee — are included.

Those rates are competitive with area office suites, Howard says. But the work environment is much friendlier than separate rooms with walls and doors.

Howard says about half the people who have signed up so far had been working out of their homes.

He was one of them.

The other day though, he said “the 5 sweetest words in the world” to his wife: “I’m going to the office.”

The Hub's desks invite collaboration. They're more inviting now than this photo shows; chairs have arrived since then.

The Hub’s desks invite collaboration. They’re more inviting now than this photo shows; chairs have arrived.

(For more information on the Westport Innovation Hub, click here.)