BOULDER — The innovation community faces several challenges as the industry grows, namely in finding partnerships, talent and fostering the innovation process.
Several Boulder Valley CEOs discussed those issues at the BizWest CEO Roundtable on Innovation, Tuesday.
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For many startups, it can be difficult getting assistance from larger corporations or academic institutions to grow the business. But those partnerships can be necessary to get the case studies needed to test and grow a business, said Murad Kablan, CEO of Stateless Inc., a company that builds scalable solutions for data centers. But Stateless has been working with the University of Colorado Boulder, whose new vice chancellor for research and innovation, Terri Fiez, has been very pro-entrepreneur.
“She’s been very helpful,” Kablan said. “We’re seeing a promising thing with CU.”
Entrepreneurs such as Alexandra Weiner, co-founder of Sigmend, which oversees Open Labs, a think tank for those who function with Bipolar Disorder, would like to see more formal connections among startups and large businesses and universities.
“We’re in the pipeline for several different universities,” she said. “It feels like we’re putting a lot of resources in one basket. I’m gathering there should be a more transparent process, a guideline to larger companies. And then formalize what the process looks like and have some accountability around it.”
Other formal partnerships come in the way of organizations such as Boulder Bits, which helps founders validate their ideas and form them into viable businesses.
“We have a startup studio model that’s created toward being harsh,” said Boulder Bits founder and CEO Jesse Lawrence. “It’s a safe place. And we help do it with others [outside of Boulder Bits] as long as they are OK with the harsh style. As soon as they are defensive, we back off. It’s an open invitation to any entrepreneur who wants to innovate. It’s part of our service to entrepreneurs.”
Working with businesses like that helps form a network, which many CEOs are finding is the best way to find elusive talent in the area.
“Every problem is a people problem,” Lawrence said. “It’s easier to fill talent with your network than with job postings. You need to pump the network continuously and focus on increasing the network. Through your network, you’ll find the best talent and the most-diverse talent.”
Diversity is a major concern for the CEOs, especially hiring women.
Nagesh Anupindi, founder of Samantha Ventures, which connects lifestyle companies with the technology and software they need to grow, said he made a promise to keep his workforce 35 percent female. That’s been a challenge.
“I can’t keep up,” he said, adding that his team is about 32 percent women. “I’m not hiring men because I can’t get the women I wanted.”
Kristen Stiles, co-founder and CEO of babysitting app Sitter.me, said the issue is near to her, as she remembers being the only woman in tech when she graduated college and recalled one place wanting to hire her because they needed a “mom” around.
“Now my tech team is all men,” she said. “That’s difficult to swallow. I got them through my network, and I told my team the next person we hire is going to be female. Way back when, the only way I got a new job was through my network. And I have females in my network I’m looking at now.”
Fortunately, there are some positive signs in the industry, said Clif Harald, executive director of the Boulder Economic Council. CU bringing on Terri Fiez and the dean of the school of engineering wanting gender parity with students as soon as possible are good signs, he pointed out.
Not only is finding diverse talent difficult, Stiles said, but being in Boulder can be a hindrance to young junior-level talent who can’t afford the area. Stiles, who is from Boulder, said it was a tough move, but she had to move the company to Denver to be in an affordable location for her employees.
The talent issue isn’t limited to startups.
“I work with a lot of industries,” Harald said. “Every industry is struggling to find talent across all occupations. It’s a brave new world we’re in. It’s fraught with challenges and promising with opportunity.”
In the meantime, entrepreneurs such as Anke Corbin, CEO of Globig, which helps companies with their international expansion, are looking to manage the day-to-day while keeping innovation and creativity strong at her startup.
“We were so busy executing, we were not stopping to think and create and bring other people into the conversation,” Corbin said. “We had to stop what we were doing and take the time to invite our mentors back in.”
Luckily for CEOs such as Corbin, the Front Range has the perfect ecosystem for making creativity easy.
“People in Boulder take the time a lot of the time,” Lawrence said. “At 2:30 in the afternoon people are hiking together for work and talking. They’re changing location, which is known to help with creativity and innovation. They’re getting the blood flowing, which can help create a space and environment for the body to be creative. The environment and the culture in the Front Range really does help with a creative environment. Whereas New York, it can be harder to get out, and in Silicon Valley you have to wade through two hours of traffic to get to that space. Some places there is not much outside the town to go do. Here, you can see the reason why we step outdoors. And the environment does help creativity.”
Nagesh Anupindi, founder & managing partner of Samantha Ventures; Tyler Whitfield, project manager at Samantha Ventures; Anke Corbin, founder and CEO, Globig; Clif Harald, executive director of the Boulder Economic Council; Murad Kablan, CEO of Stateless Inc.; Jesse Lawrence, founder and CEO of Boulder Bits; Kristen Stiles, co-founder and CEO of Sitter.me; Alexandra Weiner, co-founder of Sigmend. Moderator: Christopher Wood, co-publisher/editor, BizWest. Sponsors: EKS&H: Jim Cowgill and Jeremy Wilson; Berg Hill Greenleaf Ruscitti: Jared Crain and Jim Fipp.