Boulder’s innovation ecosystem sees challenges, opportunities

BOULDER — Boulder’s “innovation economy” continues to achieve national and global attention in some sectors — such as natural and organic — but the region faces numerous challenges to maintain and grow its national reputation.

That was the message from numerous panelists at the 10th annual Boulder Economic Summit: The Innovation Imperative, May 25, at the University Memorial Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. The half-day conference, presented by the Boulder Economic Council, attracted 370 people.

The opening keynote panel, titled “Epicenter of Innovation: A Boulder SWOT Assessment,” sought to assess Boulder’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. The session was moderated by Phil Weiser, Hatfield professor of law and telecommunications, dean emeritus and executive director of the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship at CU Boulder.

Panelist Carlotta Mast, executive director of content and insights for New Hope Network and chairwoman for Naturally Boulder, said the natural-products industry will surpass $200 billion in sales this year (nationwide). That number has doubled in 10 years, she said, leading to a February article in The New York Times about the city’s rise as a natural-products hub.

“The industry is growing rapidly, and Boulder is recognized as the epicenter of this industry,” Mast said.

She said key to Boulder’s success is its culture of sharing.

“Our industry has always been about a rising tide lifts all boats, so it’s always been about sharing as much information as possible,” she said, noting the prevalence of coffee-shop meetings at which industry veterans provide insights and advice to new players.

“It’s what has created such an amazing culture that is hard to replicate in other areas,” she said.

Brian Lewandowski, associate director of the Business Research Division of the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, said the region continues to enjoy a wave of new companies launching each year, and ranks high nationwide for the number of Small Business Innovation Research grants.

Boulder County also leads the state in terms of patent applications in the past 15 years. He said key to the innovation economy’s success is the presence of CU Boulder and 17 federal research laboratories centers and joint institutes with the city of Boulder.

“I think that’s some evidence that Boulder is an innovation economy,” Lewandowski said. “Why? Talent. We know that innovators are people. These people have ideas.”

He noted that the city has more people who have a graduate degree than have just a bachelor’s degree, and that the city hosts 12 co-working spaces, seven accelerators and 36 firms engaged in venture capital, private equity and angel investing.

He noted that 116 coffee shops and juice bars exist in Boulder County — fueling that collaborative culture — and, “We have 29,000 garages in the city for all of those future startups.”

Michael Gazarik, vice president of engineering for Ball Aerospace, said the company employs 3,000 people in Colorado, mostly in Boulder and Broomfield. The size of Colorado’s aerospace sector, he said, surprises many people, even though it ranks No. 2 nationwide in terms of aerospace jobs per capita, dropping recently from the No. 1 position.

“We’re good, but we could be great,” he said, lamenting the lack of notoriety for the state’s aerospace sector.

He also expressed concern about potential cuts in federal funding for scientific research. He said more focus should be made on why science is important, both to the economy and national security.

“We’ve probably got to get a little bit better about trying to articulate what those benefits are,” he said.

J.J. Ament, who recently took over as CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. from the retired executive Tom Clark, said in introductory remarks that the organization is working to ensure adequate funding for federal laboratories in the state.

“This is the math and science department for our nation,” Ament said.

Kay Henze, senior vice president, dark-fiber solutions for Zayo Group, said the company cites several reasons for remaining in Boulder, even after 41 acquisitions and reaching a global workforce of 4,000 — 700 in Colorado and 500 in Boulder. The reasons? Innovation, talent and the presence of CU Boulder.

“You couldn’t replace those things with economic incentives by moving somewhere else,” she said.

Darren Dasburg, vice president and site head for AstraZeneca, said the company’s growth to 225 people since taking over the Amgen facility in September 2015 is just the beginning, noting that the company subsequently acquired Amgen’s Longmont facility for future growth.

But he said much of the world remains unaware of the Boulder Valley’s bioscience cluster.

He also said that Boulder County’s 1.8 percent unemployment rate — the lowest in the nation — makes it extremely difficult to fill certain positions, including the trades. He said AstraZeneca had to bring certain workers in from Arizona and Greenville, S.C., to retrofit the Amgen facility.

Mast added that the cost of doing business in Boulder should be viewed as a threat, with both commercial and residential space fetching a premium.

“It’s very challenging, and a lot of our entrepreneurs talk about that challenge,” Mast said.

Others sessions at the Boulder Economic Summit focused on Boulder’s Culture of Creativity and Innovation; CU Boulder’s Leadership in Innovation; The Innovation Imperative in Food & Retail; Collaboration, Connections and Cooperation; and Boulder’s Research & Commercialization Imperative.