Start Me Up! Boulder’s Unique Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Scott Sternberg

Thoughts from Scott Sternberg, Executive Director, Boulder Economic Council

Oh, the joy of returning to social circles! When my friends and family get together, we often discuss and/or debate current events, politics, literature, sports and, of course, who is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band of all time. At this point, I usually find myself making a case for the Rolling Stones. Perhaps it is because they were my first stadium-scale concert. We were packed shoulder-to-shoulder, which seems unheard of by today’s social distancing standards. The show opened with a distinctive Keith Richards riff bellowing off the stage amplified to 1.21 gigawatts. What followed, in the cool autumn air, was the now iconic lyric: “If you start me up…”!

Last week was Boulder Startup Week, Boulder’s premier free, week-long conference for the entrepreneurial community. Primarily sponsored by TechStars, arguably one of Boulder’s most impressive and extensive grass roots stories, the event celebrated its 12th anniversary this year. Admittedly, the celebration was a bit dampened as the last two years have imposed a virtual protocol on what is, at its core, a person-to-person community. Regardless, I was inspired by this year’s theme: resilience.

Much has been said, and written, about the startup and entrepreneurial culture here in Boulder. In fact, Boulder is respected globally for our connected network of “serial entrepreneurs.” We attract venture capital from a wide range of sources, technology flows out of the federally funded laboratories, and CU Boulder has strategically focused on both the support of aspiring entrepreneurs and the commercialization of its own innovations. Moreover, Boulder is a place where mentorship, support and collaboration abound.

It is also great to have our startup culture and entrepreneurial spirit represented by our elected officials. John Hickenlooper, Colorado’s former governor and now a U.S. senator, considers himself an entrepreneur. Additionally, Boulder’s own Governor Polis sits as a founding member of Boulder’s premier startup. Talk about credibility at the highest level!

I return to this year’s theme: resilience. In my opinion, resilience results from a few underlying components. First, there needs to be a critical mass – check! The discussions, presentations, hybrid events, and – most importantly – the clandestine beers, lunches, coffees and impromptu meetups, demonstrate the vibrancy and importance of the network I describe above. Second, there needs to be a continuous evolutionary path for improvement. Boulder spawns critical and innovative thinking. We have the support/mentor infrastructure to inspire the process. We celebrate the educational resources for aspiring entrepreneurs. We invest in incubators, accelerators, and co-working opportunities. Third, there needs to be a deep commitment to succeed. The supportive meetup events, venture challenges and a downright visceral attitude to thrive, and sometimes just survive, in challenging times is transcribed in our DNA and passed on through the generations of those who travel the entrepreneurial path.

We pass it forward.  Successful entrepreneurs exit and become angels. Acquirers become captivated by our phenomenon. Researchers double down on their efforts to generate valuable intellectual property. By its very nature, an entrepreneur is resilient – a very fitting theme for last week’s signature event for a very appropriate time. To paraphrase much of the content from many of the conference sessions, I submit this: “I will do it better next time.” Because, as Mick Jagger so proudly vocalized at our own Folsom Field in 1981: “If you start me up, I’ll never stop, never stop…”