Thoughts from Scott Sternberg, Executive Director, Boulder Economic Council
Early in my career I spent a great amount of time peering through a research-grade optical microscope. The startup I was with had an innovative idea: take the same digital cameras that were being used on the world’s largest telescopes to investigate outer space and place them on microscopes to investigate “inner-space.” That novel approach ultimately resulted in a very lucrative business. However, it was not just the application of a novel technology to an existing technique that created the breakthrough. Many complementary, and serendipitous, factors contributed to this success story. The race to sequence the human genome was on, microscopic fluorescence bioassays were being developed and digital image processing was exploding on rapidly advancing desktop computer platforms. Oh, not to mention that devices called ‘digital cameras’ were quickly becoming more affordable! This tornado of events conspired to advance a great number of life sciences fronts.
We are fortunate in Boulder to have an environment that provides a similar space for such evolutions in understanding and applying new innovations across a variety of industries. We tout a strong bioscience infrastructure and a generally smart community that understands how important the life sciences are, especially today considering the pandemic. This creates an environment for cross industry collaboration that leads to innovation and business success.
The public health crisis has served as a bioscience educational moment for us all. Over the past year we all have become familiar with a diagnostic technique known as PCR, the role of mRNA, the concept of herd immunity and learned the difference between Efficacy and Effectiveness. We have come to understand the power of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and, of course, Dr. Fauci and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Lastly, we have all come to recognize the tremendous capability and scale of companies such as Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson.
The Colorado Bioscience Association (CBSA) estimates that the state is home to over 700 life sciences companies and organizations, as well as 117,000 direct and indirect jobs, and contributes to over $3 billion in annual payroll (CBSA Industry Snapshot). Closer to home, Boulder County supports 88 medical devices and diagnostic companies and 100 pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. This is nearly six times and three times the national average, respectively (BEC 2020 Market Profile). Further, Boulder is home to CU’s BioFrontiers Institute, one of the few interdisciplinary bioscience research institutes in the country.
Economic vitality is about striking a healthy balance between a wide range of perspectives, experiences, and talents. Further, there needs to be both a willingness and mechanism for open communication and collaboration. Our community of roughly 100,000 persons routinely appears in the top tier of our peer municipalities when it comes to education attainment and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) employment. Boulder also ranks number one in the 2019 Bloomberg Brain Concentration Index (Boulder Innovation Venture 2.0). In short, Boulder is replete with intellectual horsepower!
As our intellectual base serves as the raw material, the way we approach problems in an interdisciplinary manner is what, in my opinion, gives Boulder its advantage. The local opportunities and platforms, including the recent adoption of new digital forums, to convene and collaborate are literally too numerous to mention. This approach, however, relies on what CU Boulder Nobel Laureate Tom Cech coined years ago as “productive collisions” – ideas that spring from bringing diverse disciplines together in one space.
We cannot underestimate the value of person-to-person contact when it comes to the exchange of ideas and the sparks of new thoughts and perspectives. As we slowly come back together, I think we will find a new appreciation for the quality of conversation we have at events, conferences, the occasional coffee meet-up or simply by grabbing lunch. Personally, I look forward to the day where I can be with you in person at one of the many Boulder Chamber and Boulder Economic Council signature events. I think you will agree that we often leave those events with a mind full of thoughts, new contacts, and enhanced enthusiasm.
As we all reflect on a challenging year, we do so with the comfort of knowing that our community, through its insight, intuition, and intellect, has been part of the solution. Many of the recent advances in biosciences have either their roots or collaborators here in Boulder. Many of those resulted from the drive for us to work together: further evidence that Boulder enjoys a high quality of life sciences!