Change is afoot in Colorado, with the state being heralded as one of America’s new tech strongholds as the likes of Boulder, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs welcome sizeable numbers of entrepreneurs into their communities. But nowhere is the changed more pronounced than in Denver, where a quite radical transformation is taking place...
Spend some time in the various start-up hubs across the state and one of the first things that strikes you is the number of accelerators powering this change. But these are not just any old accelerators; Colorado is home to some of the biggest and most innovative accelerators around. Keen to get a better understanding of the impact of the state’s love affair with the accelerator, we spoke to Denver-based Bruce Dines, Vice President of Liberty Global Ventures – the Corporate Venture Arm of Liberty Global.
Having founded three businesses in Denver and worked for a number of leading technology and telecommunications companies, Dines certainly knows a thing or two about tech start-ups. But has he ever seen anything like this take place in Denver, or the wider Colorado area, before?
"The best way to answer that is by looking out of my office window on the tenth floor, where I can see six cranes working on new high-rise buildings," explains Dines. "If you look at the zip code, 80202, which covers a broad part of downtown Denver, then you will find 27 cranes currently operating there. The majority of this new office space being created has already been sold or leased. My feeling is that it’s becoming a real centre of gravity as far as technology is concerned."
The vastness of much of the Colorado landscape only serves to accentuate the hive of activity in Denver, as the cranes look to create sufficient workspace and new homes for the massive influx of millennials relocating to the city. But why now?
"What’s happening here is what I call a ‘bottom up market’, all of these accelerators and the cultural shift occurring with millennials mean it’s become so much more interesting and achievable to start a business here now," notes Dines. "You can do it efficiently, with less capital and there seems to a lot more focus on the rewards of entrepreneurship. All of this is leading to more stimulating opportunities and more interest in becoming an entrepreneur."
Five accelerators sparking change in Colorado
If any accelerator needs no introduction then it’s Techstars. In the words of Dines: "simply the largest accelerator in the world".
Founded in Boulder in 2006, Techstars now boast a global of community of over 1.5 million people, including over 2,000 mentors. You can find Techstars accelerators all over the world, including now in East London, where the Liberty Global funded Virgin Media Accelerator is being powered by Techstars. It’s reported that less than one per cent of the start-ups which apply to Techstars are accepted on the 13 week mentor-driven programme.
"While Galvanize is not an accelerator in the Techstars sense of the word, they are building a real ecosystem and disrupting the education market. They provide six month courses in the most current software design and development tools, data science, software and design architecture," explains Dines.
"That means anyone who came out of school with a psychology degree, art degree, etc. and are frustrated with their current role can graduate within six months with this new certification. Because the job market is so hot they are able to guarantee a graduate of their programme, assuming they perform, a job at a minimum salary of $65,000."
The world’s first and only accelerator for start-ups based in the cannabis industry has been making waves in this rapidly growing sector as of late. For a $20,000 investment CanopyBoulder will take a six to nine per cent stake, inviting start-ups to relocate to Boulder for a 16 week business bootcamp.
"A business accelerator seemed like a great solution for a big problem the industry has – a lack of investment worthy businesses," explains co-founder Patrick Rea. "There’s no shortage of 'budding entrepreneurs' but there is a lack of qualified teams who are ready for investment. The product is the entrepreneur and the customer is the investor, we’re here to eliminate the friction between the two."
Fort Collins-based Innosphere is a non-profit incubator focused on supporting entrepreneurs who are building potential high-growth companies in cleantech, software, biosciences and digital health. Innosphere supported 42 high-tech Client Companies in 2015. These 42 companies raised $31.8M total capital in one year and have raised $87.9M total capital.
With Colorado’s reputation as one of the cleanest and healthiest states in the whole of the US, the businesses that come out of Innosphere could have a big say on the lives of the people in the state.
Down the road from CanopyBoulder you’ll find MergeLane, an accelerator for exclusively women-led companies. Their end goal of no longer being required may seem like an odd one to some, with the team determined to level the playing field and reach the point where every accelerator has a strong female focus.
"Investing in women is a smart decision for your returns and there’s a lot of data to back that up," explains programme manager Hannah Davis. "That’s the investment thesis that this fund is built on. Not only that, but the belief that it’s really important to give women more opportunities in the start-up world. Diversity can bring better products to the market."