FORT COLLINS – Fort Collins-based Innosphere and Boulder-based Innovation Center of the Rockies plan to merge effective Jan. 1, combining a pair of nonprofit incubators that serve tech startups and university innovations along the Front Range.
The two organizations will join forces under the Innosphere flag, with ICR’s assets transferring to Innosphere. Both boards of directors have approved the deal.
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The merger will give Innosphere, which has offices in Fort Collins and Denver, a physical presence in Boulder County, where about a half dozen of its current client companies are based.
The two organizations traditionally have targeted two distinct stages of the innovation cycle.
Founded in 2005, ICR’s niche has been in leveraging a network of hundreds of advisers in the business community to help university technology-transfer offices and researchers understand the business potential of their innovations. ICR would then help develop commercialization strategies for those innovations, sometimes matching entrepreneurs with the technology to launch companies. ICR has commercialization agreements with the University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado State University and the Colorado School of Mines.
Innosphere, meanwhile, has provided a two-year incubator program during which startups are connected with mentors and corporate partners who help the companies hone business plans, become investor-ready and raise capital to accelerate their growth.
Both organizations have close working relationships with CSU, Innosphere CEO Mike Freeman said, with ICR often helping get the startup process going for a given university technology before Innosphere then picks up where ICR’s services left off and helps get the startup to the next stage.
“Really what we’re doing is creating a seamless package of services,” Freeman said in an interview. “I think from a practical standpoint, it removes the barrier of it looking like two partners.”
Innosphere, which operates on an annual budget of about $1.3 million, gets its funding through program fees charged to startups as well as through CSU and corporate sponsors. ICR’s budget has been around $300,000 per year, with funding coming from the university partners, corporate sponsors and the city of Boulder.
Freeman will remain CEO of Innosphere.
ICR executive director Eric Gricus and three of ICR’s four other employees will stay onboard with Innosphere. Gricus will serve as program director for university programs and oversee the Boulder office. ICR currently operates out of office space at the accounting firm of EKS&H in downtown Boulder, but Innosphere plans to set up a new office for its Boulder location.
Four ICR board members – business consultant Bob Gill, entrepreneur Merc Mercure, Boulder city manager Jane Brautigam, and Terry Fiez, vice chancellor for research and innovation at CU – will join the Innosphere board, which has 14 members. That’s in addition to CSU Ventures CEO Todd Headley, who is on the board of both organizations.
Freeman said it was Headley who first brought the concept of merging Innosphere and ICR to him and Gricus, an ICR veteran who took over as executive director earlier this year following Tim Bour’s departure.
“I think he saw this vision about integrating these services end-to-end, and that’s really how this conversation started,” Freeman said.
Gricus said the decision to merge with Innosphere was not a financial one from the ICR standpoint.
“I think this was one of those rare situations where one plus one equals three,” Gricus said. “It now gives our key partners a more comprehensive set of services for their innovation needs.”
While Innosphere has operated mostly in the technology space, the merger with ICR brings connections to the natural and organic foods industry, which Innosphere will add as a focus. As Innosphere has had only loose relationships with CU and Colorado School of Mines, ICR’s agreements with those two schools will give Innosphere an enhanced connection to the pipeline of innovation coming out of those universities.
Freeman said Innosphere has been eyeing adding a location in Boulder for awhile, and that the deal with ICR was core to that objective since he said his organization didn’t want to create the appearance that it might be duplicating services that were already in town.
“I don’t think it would have been appropriate to announce we’re opening in Boulder without going through a key partner like ICR,” Freeman said.