Boulder urged: Keep raising innovation bar

BOULDER — Boulder Chamber president John Tayer sees other communities along the Front Range make moves to become players in the startup scene and believes it’s good for Boulder overall as the whole region develops.

Tayer admits to worrying, however, that there is some threat to the brand Boulder has built around being an innovation hotspot. Being innovative might soon not be enough to stand out as Denver in particular markets itself as a startup community.

“I see it as an opportunity for us to continue to step up,” Tayer said. “We need to continue to step up and be the strongest hub of innovation in a network of innovation communities around the state.”

Tayer was speaking Oct. 1 at the Boulder County Business Report’s CEO Roundtable on Innovation held at the offices of event co-sponsor Berg Hill Greenleaf and Ruscitti LLP in downtown Boulder.

Tayer said he’s had mostly good relations with other area communities’ leaders, who recognize the role Boulder has played in helping create the surging startup scene in Colorado.

“We generate all sorts of business growth and new business activity, and we can’t possibly accommodate it all,” Tayer said. “It eventually radiates out and benefits the entire region.”

Taylor McLemore, chief executive at Denver-based Prediculous Inc., said the rising tide of innovation in Denver need not be viewed as a threat. McLemore is a Boulder native with plenty of pride for his hometown. But he said one need look only to Boulder startups such as Rally Software Development Corp. and SendGrid Inc. that have made it big in part by straddling the divide between the two communities to leverage the strengths of each.

“Embrace the differences and look at how you can build those together,” McLemore said.

McLemore advocated building more of a Colorado brand of innovation rather than a bunch of different community brands. In doing so, he said, “We’re going to make it harder for (companies and entrepreneurs) to not choose Colorado.”

Everyone at the roundtable agreed that Boulder has plenty of strengths working for it, in particular the support the community shows in rallying around early-stage ideas and supporting them.

Prediculous and Denver-based Brandfolder Inc. went through the TechStars Boulder startup accelerator program over the summer. The access startups have to venture capitalists and experienced entrepreneurs to lean on for funding and mentorship is strong.

However, Boulder also has some limitations, particularly in terms of space and facilities. Scott Rodwin – whose Boulder-based Rodwin Architecture Inc. has spun off the Agora Foundation, a company developing solar-powered and wireless connected gathering places for developing communities around the world – said the architectural stock in Denver provides more diversity for companies that are growing rapidly and have changing space needs over time.

For startups in Boulder that get their start near the Pearl Street Mall, there often comes a point when they have to look elsewhere to find the space they need – but other areas of Boulder where they can go might not convey the same entrepreneurial energy for which central Boulder is known. Much of that, Rodwin said, is an issue of zoning that is too narrow in some parts of town.

Tayer agrees and said Boulder and the business community need to work on developing “more Pearl Streets” around the community to provide the types of urban mixed-use amenities that attract startups and entrepreneurs as an attractive place to live and work.

“We can create those kind of vibrant sites for our innovation office sites to support entrepreneurs,” Tayer said. “We just can’t always focus on one spot.”

Scott Brown, CEO of Bounce.io, officially Swift Labs Inc., said his company did just that in locating in downtown Louisville, an area Brown believes can turn into a Pearl Street type of environment as it relates to fostering innovation.

“We think that area is really emerging for us,” Brown said.

Rodwin said Boulder can continue to keep its own strong identity in part by playing host to more events such as those hosted by the Unreasonable Institute to connect entrepreneurs with mentors and investors.

Brian Parks, CEO of Brandfolder Inc., said the biggest advantage of going through something such as TechStars in Boulder was the community and network of experienced CEOs, sales and marketing professionals and investors who can teach startups much more than just how to create a great product.

“There’s a lesson there in how you message the power of what you’re creating,” Parks said. “You have to get your story right, which is difficult.”

Getting the story right often is half the battle, if not more, in the innovation realm, Tayer said, so one of the Boulder Chamber’s big pushes is to encourage more connection between business and the research and development going on at the area’s universities.

That’s where Eric Gricus and the Innovation Center of the Rockies come into play, helping bridge that gap between the two sectors. Gricus said university faculty inventors’ main focus often isn’t the commercial angle of how their discoveries could be marketed to solve consumer problems. Often, those faculty members are innovating simply to push the bounds of science. With secure tenured positions, they are risk-averse when it comes to putting their careers or life savings on the line to try to take an invention to market.

“That’s really the key piece in the whole thing,” Gricus said of matching the discoveries from academia to business-minded entrepreneurs. “Innovation occurs when we can actually match that to a need in the market that people are willing to pay for.”

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