On Monday, I had the pleasure of travelling to Boulder, CO, to participate, along with a number of other Administration officials, in the seventh of eight stops that are a part of the Startup America Roadshow. The local newspaper captured some of the high points in this article. Before touching on my observations from the event, let me first answer the question, “Why Boulder?”
Fifteen years ago, Boulder was considered a sleepy college town known mostly for its great rock-climbing. Today, Boulder is home to one of the strongest entrepreneurial communities in the country, with close to 200 fledgling tech companies and a city campaign that proclaims “Boulder is for startups.” In fact, last year BusinessWeek named Boulder America’s best town for startups, and it was featured in The New York Times for its entrepreneurial scene. Part of its success rests on the fact that Boulder has the highest U.S. concentration of software engineers and PhDs per capita. It is second only to Silicon Valley in percentage of workers employed in the technology sector.
In discussing the success of Boulder as an entrepreneurial success story, I speak from personal experience, having worked at the University of Colorado Law School and run the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship from 1999 until joining the Obama Administration in 2009. The success of Boulder as an entrepreneurial ecosystem is not merely attracting smart people—it’s really about the community. Notably, in Boulder and the surrounding areas, there is an amazing willingness of successful entrepreneurs to help the up-and-comers.
The rabbi of the Boulder entrepreneurial ecosystem—and someone who has done more than anyone to set this tone—is my good friend Brad Feld, who along with his co-founders of the Foundry Group have given enormous time and energy to building an entrepreneurial community. Brad also brought a number of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to the White House last summer to talk about what could be done to celebrate, support, and spur entrepreneurship. Along with input from many others, that discussion helped shape the Startup America initiative.
One of the great success stories in Boulder is the rise of TechStars, which is now the top startup accelerator in the world and a key partner of Startup America. Since TechStars was founded in Boulder by Brad, Jared Polis (now our representative in Congress), and David Cohen, it has since expanded to four other cities, with offices in Boston, Seattle, and New York City. The program accepts applications from early-stage startups and provides them with seed funding and mentorship opportunities from some of the best and brightest minds in tech. Boulder TechStars alums include Brightkite, which was acquired for $1.5 million; Ignighter, which has received $4.2 million in funding; and, Graphic.ly, which also now has received $4.2 million in funding.
Later next week, Boulder will hold its second annual Startup Week. Startup Week Boulder is five spring days full of events and stars from inside and outside the Boulder tech community. From May 18-22, the city’s startups will be rolling out the red carpet for talented developers, designers, marketers, and general startup enthusiasts.
Many entrepreneurial communities ask how they can be the next Silicon Valley? As Brad has often explained, that’s the wrong question. The right question is how any entrepreneurial community—whether Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Phoenix, or Portland—can be the best it can be. Each community has its own particular attributes and leaders. Working together and supporting each other, as Boulder leaders have done, is a core part of building a more successful ecosystem.
Monday’s discussion reflected the level of engagement and thoughtfulness that I have come to expect from the Boulder entrepreneurial community. We touched on a series of topics, ranging from access to capital to attracting great employees to reforming regulation to enabling better technology transfer from government labs. As the Roadshow effort comes to a close, I know that these ideas will inform a number of ongoing policy development and implementation initiatives, including the Commerce Department’s upcoming report on innovation and competitiveness.
Phil Weiser is Senior Advisor to the National Economic Council and Director for Technology & Innovation