Cultivating innovation economy takes work

I always enjoy the roundtable conversations that BizWest convenes, and last week’s, featuring representatives from the startup business community, was particularly enlightening.  The mix of entrepreneurs, innovation-economy business leaders and economic-support professionals shared a number of common perceptions about the state of affairs for startups in Boulder.  This touched on both the many assets we enjoy and the threats to Boulder’s status as a startup capital.

Boulder’s beautiful environment is a key draw for both first-time and serial entrepreneurs who expect to work hard, but want easy access to our outdoor amenities when time allows.  There also was a great deal of praise for the unique supportive nature of Boulder’s startup community that puts an emphasis on helping others succeed in their business ventures.  We can thank both of these qualities to our predecessors, along with today’s leaders who both sustain the commitment to preserving Boulder’s natural environment and are passing the “give-first” lesson on to future generations.

There are other elements of Boulder’s character that drives its strength as a startup community.  The pure density of entrepreneurial enterprises creates its own velocity.  Certainly, the presence of a strong research university and federal laboratories are a draw for creative minds while spinning off exciting business opportunities.

There is also a lot of local institutional support for startups in Boulder, with valuable programs emanating from organizations as diverse as the city’s Community Vitality Division to industry-focused associations, such as Naturally Boulder and Active Boulder.  The Boulder Chamber, our Boulder Economic Council, Downtown Boulder, the Boulder SBDC, and the Latino Chamber — and the list goes on — also are all working to sustain Boulder’s leadership as a generator of successful startup business enterprises.  And of course, outside of the public realm, there are abundant local business leaders — often successful entrepreneurs in their own right — who designed the accelerator programs, provide capital support through venture firms and angel funds, and/or offer one-to-one mentorship that creates the climate for entrepreneurs to thrive.

What was clear from last week’s conversation, though, is that there are cracks in Boulder’s entrepreneurial glow.  High housing costs and difficult regional commute patterns are making it more difficult for new startups to locate in our community.  These challenges present an even higher hurdle as businesses grow and their employees are dispersed across a broader metropolitan region.  Further, the entrepreneurs we visited with last week bemoaned the greater difficultly accessing higher-tier capital investment support in Boulder than in other parts of the country.

There are signs that, for a few innovative businesses and entrepreneurs, the challenges of starting and building a business in Boulder outweigh the benefits.  SendGrid’s decision to pull up stakes and move to Denver caught the attention of those sitting at our roundtable.  Denver is investing heavily in generating a new buzz in its play to attract entrepreneurs.  Other surrounding communities also are extending a welcoming hand to startup businesses, with attractive programs that are coupled with cheaper office space and housing costs.

This type of regional “competition” is not new, and we will always see some leakage from Boulder.  It’s the consequence of individual business decisions and the successful efforts of other communities to bolster their own economic health.  The cycle of departures out of Boulder also allows new businesses to flourish here that might otherwise not have found a home in our community.  That can be a healthy thing.

However, wearing my parochial Boulder hat, we can never take the strength of the Boulder’s economy for granted.  Identifying challenges, developing solutions and investing in measures that preserve and strengthen our unique qualities are steps we must continue to take.

It’s a constant process of cultivating the character of Boulder that sustains our innovation economy, for the long term.

The Boulder Chamber is working with the city of Boulder and the University of Colorado, along with entrepreneurial centers such as Spark, to take an in-depth dive into where we stand now in our support of startup businesses and the best practices we should consider pursuing.  We also continue to fight for improved regional transportation connections, as well as expanded housing and commercial office space options, all in an effort to maintain an attractive environment for entrepreneurial and growing businesses to thrive.

Whether you call it a continuous-improvement exercise or simply a prudent investment in our economic future, we plan to press hard on these fronts …  as you never appreciate more what you have until you’ve lost it.

John Tayer is president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber. He can be reached at 303-442-1058 or via email at john.tayer@boulderchamber.com.

I always enjoy the roundtable conversations that BizWest convenes, and last week’s, featuring representatives from the startup business community, was particularly enlightening.  The mix of entrepreneurs, innovation-economy business leaders and economic-support professionals shared a number of common perceptions about the state of affairs for startups in Boulder.  This touched on both the many assets we enjoy and the threats to Boulder’s status as a startup capital.

Boulder’s beautiful environment is a key draw for both first-time and serial entrepreneurs who expect to work hard, but want easy access to our outdoor amenities when time allows.  There also was a great deal of praise for the unique supportive nature of Boulder’s startup community that puts an emphasis on helping others succeed in their business ventures.  We can thank both of these qualities to our predecessors, along with today’s leaders who both sustain the commitment to preserving Boulder’s natural environment and are passing the “give-first” lesson on to future generations.

There are other elements of Boulder’s character that drives its strength as a startup community.  The pure density of entrepreneurial enterprises creates its own velocity.  Certainly, the presence of a strong research university and federal laboratories are a draw for creative minds while spinning off exciting business opportunities.

There is also a lot of local institutional support for startups in Boulder, with valuable programs emanating from organizations as diverse as the city’s Community Vitality Division to industry-focused associations, such as Naturally Boulder and Active Boulder.