Linking startups with seasoned hands

There’s no doubt that Colorado and Wyoming universities are bursting with entrepreneurial ideas and innovations with the potential to change the world. What business incubators and accelerators do is provide them with the opportunity to try.

These startup support organizations partner with early-stage companies and act as both a roadmap and a guide, helping turn what may have started as a homework assignment into a fully functioning, often lucrative business.

“You come in with a product and you leave with a company,´ said Nicole Glaros, the managing director at TechStars, a Boulder-based accelerator.

While the services provided and methods employed by the incubators vary, their programs most often include business coaching, adviser mentoring, assistance in accessing capital, a temporary space and a network of like-minded entrepreneurs and seasoned business veterans – an invaluable resource for a still-feeble startup.

The Wyoming Technology Business Center, the business development program for the University of Wyoming, is located on campus in Laramie and has a second location planned for Casper, Wyo. The 30,000-square-foot facility in Laramie, which opened in 2006, equips WTBC tenants with laboratory, office and conference room space.

With a focus on technology-based startups, and more recently including bio-science companies, the WTBC serves a crucial role in generating business in a largely rural state. Its relationship with UW is beyond a partnership – the two are inseparable.

“The university has a strong sense of an economic-development mission,´ said Jon Benson, the CEO of the WTBC and an adjunct professor at UW. “Typically in Laramie, this is the engine generating new startup opportunities.”

Benson, who teaches entrepreneurialism, partners with UW’s College of Business for an annual business plan competition. The grand prize: free space in the incubator for a year.

Bright AgroTech LLC, a company the WBTC currently partners with, was started by a UW doctorate student in agronomy. The startup produces vertical hydroponic systems, allowing users to increase their crop production. Benson said Bright Agrotech’s technology has been patented, and, with the help of the center, the founders are working on a plan for taking it to market.

The four “graduates” of WBTC now employ a combined 85 people and utilize 25,000 square feet of space. But Benson sees this as only the beginning. With the recent purchase by UW of Cirrus Sky Technology Park in Laramie, it’s expected that the school plans to offer more WTBC graduates a permanent home in the future.

Northern Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Innosphere has a similar mission: to assist and accelerate promising startups towards success, with the ultimate goal of economic growth for the entire region.

Mike Freeman, CEO of the Innosphere, describes Colorado State University as a critical partner in this mission. RMI works closely with CSU Ventures, the nonprofit arm of the university dedicated to technology-transfer and commercialization for student and faculty-led businesses.

“The relationship (between CSU Ventures and the Innosphere) is a natural fit,´ said Todd Headley, president of CSU Ventures. “Our interests are really aligned for what we want to do.”

In addition to the more tangible resources that incubators provide universities, Headley said the sense of community they create for small companies coming out of CSU is also valuable.

Two CSU startups are the most recent product of this partnership: KromaTiD, the creator of products that analyze defects and damage to human chromosomes, and OptiEnz, a manufacturer of devices that allow users to measure concentrations of chemicals in environmental and industrial settings. Both companies started calling the Innosphere home this fall.

“The Innosphere is a fantastic partner and has provided us with the guidance and services to help our company take the next step into the business world,´ said Chris Tompkins, president and CEO of KromaTiD.

As a nonprofit, the Innosphere doesn’t take equity in its companies, but rather commits to helping its partners get the capital they need through its various resources, including a growing donor pool.

Many of the companies it works with are housed in the Innosphere itself, a 32,500-square foot building equipped to shelter up to 35 nesting businesses.

The space itself encourages collaboration – conference rooms and various meeting spaces can be found on each of the three floors.

Doug Johnson, the Innosphere’s vice president, describes the space as “allowing small companies to behave like larger ones.”

Many are taking advantage. The Innosphere is currently working with 33 companies – close to saturation.

Elsewhere, the Innovation Center of the Rockies in Boulder also partners with the state’s schools. But the non-profit business accelerator is unique in that it focuses on job creation based on technology emerging from all of Colorado’s research universities.

Eighty-percent of its effort is directed at commercializing technology developed at the University of Colorado, Colorado School of Mines, CSU and the University of Denver, said Eric Gricus, ICR’s program manager.

Those efforts have paid off. The center has worked with more than 125 research teams and has nine startups based on university intellectual property being formed, resulting in 402 jobs and nearly $75 million in new capital-boosting economic activity in Colorado.

“Incubators represent hope and the promise of prosperity that new businesses provide,” Gricus said. “Our role in commercializing technology and creating jobs is more important than ever.”

The Unreasonable Institute, a Boulder-based incubator in its fourth year, works so closely with its mentors from CU Boulder that they often sleep over.

The Institute hosts its entrepreneurs, mentors and investors in a single home, to live and work and learn together for six weeks in an intimate and focused business-building program. But this is no pajama party.

“For real capital and mentorship you need to be able to cultivate a relationship well beyond a pitch or a passing interaction,´ said Banks Benitez, the vice president of partnerships. “If we can create a place where they can co-exist, then relationships will form, and mentorship and capital will follow. We build that ecosystem.”

Taking advantage of its academic neighborhood, the institute partners with CU Boulder for events, mentors and speakers, lining up a mentor program that has attracted entrepreneurs from 36 different countries and all over the U.S.

Some of the companies themselves have come from this partnership. Bould, a summer 2012 graduate of the Unreasonable Institute, was co-founded by CU alum Stephan Lepke and Shane Baldauf, along with their partner Shane Gring. The company assists architects in finding green building careers and earning the necessary credentials to qualify for them. The Denver-based company recently won the Hitachi Foundation’s Young Entrepreneurs Program Award – which included a $40,000 grant – and is now “gaining some serious traction,´ said Benitez.

“The Unreasonable Institute offered us an opportunity to step back and truly analyze our venture and our desired impact – the effects of which are still resonating today,´ said Gring. “We are now laser focused on our core business competency of green work force development.”

The Unreasonable Institute isn’t the only one gleaning from its academic surroundings. TechStars – which has additional locations in Texas, Washington, New York and Massachusetts – also works with CU, although Glaros wouldn’t describe it as a “formal partnership.” She said the accelerator is dependent on the community as a whole, and the mentorships and support it provides.

Brad Bernthal, an associate clinical professor at Colorado Law School and the director of the entrepreneurship initiative at the Silicon Flatirons Center, is one of TechStars mentors. He sees the relationship between mentor and accelerator as symbiotic.

“It (mentoring) is the ‘right’ thing for community leaders to do,” Bernthal said. “It keeps me relevant to see what the best and brightest new companies are into. And the mentor network itself is so powerful that it is a privilege to be part of it.”

He considers a mentorship an “enormous boost” for a startup, gaining access to experienced individuals and their business networks. Glaros agrees.

“It’s inspiring to see the community support these startups,” she said. “It comes back to them in ways they can’t quantify.”

What’s the difference between an incubator and an accelerator?

It depends on who you ask. While definitions vary, most would say something like this:

Incubators typically work with brand-new businesses, or with brand-new entrepreneurs with a business idea, providing them with what they need to become a viable, lucrative operation. This can include office space, mentors, a business plan and capital. The process could take several years, and often includes R&D.

Accelerators do a lot of the same, but are typically a faster paced, more intense program, graduating clients in a matter of months. They may take equity in the company in exchange for capital needed to get off the ground.

Incubators and accelerators

Innovation Center of the Rockies
Year established: 2005
Incubator or accelerator: Accelerator
Location: Boulder
Person in charge: Tim Bour, executive director
Fields of focus: Life-science, clean-tech, natural and organic products, aerospace, nano/optical/engineered, software and IT hardware. Adding agriculture and veterinary science.
Number of companies graduated: 60-plus.

Rocky Mountain Innosphere
Year established: The business incubator initiative was started in 1998, under the auspice of Fort Collins Technology Incubator.
Incubator or accelerator: Incubator
Location: Fort Collins
Person in charge: Mike Freeman, CEO
Fields of focus: Software, bioscience, clean engines, clean energy and clean-water technologies.
Number of companies graduated: Nine (but it’s actually more, though graduated companies were not always tracked at the beginning.)

Year established: 2006
Incubator or accelerator: Accelerator
Location: Boulder. Additional locations in Boston, Mass.; New York City; San Antonio, Texas; and Seattle.
Person in charge: Nicole Glaros, managing director for Boulder location
Fields of focus: Internet.
Number of companies graduated: 65 (from the Boulder location)

The Unreasonable Institute
Year established: 2009
Incubator or accelerator: Accelerator
Location: Boulder
Person in charge: Teju Ravilochan, CEO
Fields of focus: Entrepreneurs solving social and environmental issues.
Number of companies graduated: 70 have graduated, 61 still active

The Wyoming Technology Business Center
Year established: 2006
Incubator or accelerator: Incubator
Location: Laramie, Wyo.
Person in charge: Jon L. Benson
Fields of focus: Technology companies.
Number of companies graduated: Four

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