Downtown Estes Park largely is devoted to seasonal tourism-related businesses. A new business incubator is being designed to diversify the mountain town’s economy. IMage by Dallas Heltzell

Birth near for Estes’ business incubator

Jon Nicholas, president and executive director of the Estes Park Economic Development Corp., says the incubator will be housed at the EDC’s offices in Stanley Village. Image by Dallas Heltzell
Jon Nicholas, president and executive director of the Estes Park Economic Development Corp., says the incubator will be housed at the EDC’s offices in Stanley Village. Image by Dallas Heltzell

ESTES PARK — The tourist village at the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park may be embroiled in conflicts over downtown traffic, vacation-home rentals and a proposed wellness center, but at least businesses and residents generally agree that the town’s economy needs more diversity and stability.

They hope a business incubator set for full launch in a few months will help.

Representatives of the Estes Park Economic Development Corp. and Innosphere, the Fort Collins-based nonprofit that assists technology startups, met Sept. 30 to finalize plans for the incubator, which will be housed in the EDC’s offices. But its mission already is being carried out through meetup groups, pitch events and even a first startup client.

“We’ve been laying the framework for an active program in early 2017, including plans for grant funding to pay a program director,” said Jon Nicholas, the EDC’s president and executive director. “That dedicated staffer will be focused on assisting startups and business expansions for our targeted industries — especially those who are potential Innosphere clients.”

Those targeted industries include segments determined to be compatible with the village’s flavor, including “made in Estes Park” craft goods, breweries, outdoor gear and apparel, and professional services such as software development and Internet technology-related businesses.

Molding the incubator to the area included noting the number of movers and shakers who have relocated — seasonally or permanently — to the Estes Valley and the tested mentorship they can offer to startups.

Estes Park has a “pretty significant community of retired executive-level folks,” said Innosphere director Mike Freeman. “There’s a lot of experience, a lot to give back. We’re really excited about them as formal or informal advisers.”

Recommendations gleaned from public meetings and an outside consultant advised targeting that strength — providing programs and services, rather than be real-estate focused. The incubator will make use of existing office space, rather than provide office space for new companies.

The EDC already had been working to lure new businesses to the Estes Valley, but the partnership with Innosphere that was approved by both organizations’ boards last summer helps expand it by giving startups access to the incubator’s mentorship programs. Nicholas cited Innosphere’s long existence, its statewide network and relationships with such entities as Colorado State University and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“From our perspective, this is a great partnership because Innosphere is the leading incubator in Colorado,” Nicholas said. “In theory, we could do all that on our own, but it would take us a lot longer to emulate an 18-year success story.

“We’re already ID’ing and engaging with people who can start businesses,” Nicholas said.

Three Innosphere companies will pitch to Estes Park-based angel investors at an Oct. 19 event, and two meetup groups — one for startups and one for potential angel investors — already are engaging with entrepreneurs. “The angel group is an opportunity for us to create another venture-capital source for startups and expand that network of mentors,” Nicholas said, “and people at the startup meetup already have met with two new breweries and a distillery to hear about the challenges of opening a new business but also why they chose to be in Estes Park.”

Freeman added that another event in late October will center around outdoor-apparel businesses.

The first Estes Park-based client recruited by the fledgling incubator already has joined the Innosphere mentorship program, Freeman said. The founder of the company, activacuity, is an avid runner who has built a platform to help elite athletes train through coaching, videos and a software program. “He’s right at that sweet spot where he’s just introducing new products into the market,” Freeman said.

Job one for both entities, however, is to land the grants to pay the program director and run the office and programs. “We’ve kind of got a game plan to get those under way, with the goal of getting those completed by the end of November,” Freeman said. “We’ll know early next year how we stand on those.”

But Freeman emphasized that the incubator will operate under the umbrella of the Estes Park EDC.

“Innosphere will be kind of like the ‘Intel inside’,” Freeman said, “but we didn’t want the EDC to lose brand value.”

Dallas Heltzell can be reached at 303-868-6631 or dheltzell@bizwestmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DallasHeltzell.

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