An Entrepreneurship Competition Turns 5: Lessons Learned at CU-Boulder


The New Venture Challenge Championships at the University of Colorado, which wrapped up last week (see Xconomy’s coverage here), were magic. An April snowstorm did not deter more than 200 individuals from the community from packing the finals. Few things inspire like seeing entrepreneurs—especially students—solve problems by creating new companies. And the teams were great. Really great.

As a colleague said to me in a moment of post-event euphoria, “This is why we do what we do.”

Our competition, known as the CU NVC, turned five this year. It is powerful to see the NVC go from “let’s make up a competition” to, five years later, an annual institution with more than 60 teams involved. The five-year anniversary prompts reflection about what we’ve learned at CU-Boulder.

Here goes:

The CU NVC was hatched in 2008. From the start, we bootstrapped the NVC without a large gift or central campus support. Almost anyone could do what we’ve done. The CU NVC is not the biggest, richest, or most polished of campus startup competitions. But it makes an exceptionally high impact on those who participate and is among the most rewarding endeavors I’ve been part of during my eight years of university teaching. It has three simple goals: (1) collapse the campus: convene cross-disciplinary congregations and stimulate interaction across departments; (2) create an entrepreneurial launch pad: provide a campus platform that answers the question “where do I start if I want to do a startup?”; and (3) provide a pipeline to the community: offer a point of entry for CU students and faculty to get meaningfully involved in the region’s startup scene.

I’d like to think we learn more than one thing per year. In terms of things that matter, however, one insight per annum is probably about the rate of our innovation. Below are the five things we’ve learned in five years at CU-Boulder.

1. Bake campus wide engagement into the event’s DNA. The core strength of the NVC is cross-campus collaboration. From Year One’s outset, entrepreneurship entities from the business school, the law school, engineering, music, and digital arts banded together to build the NVC. Students were recruited from each of the schools to help promote the event in their home departments. Cross-campus engagement makes entrepreneurship accessible to all parts of the campus. It also becomes an important trust building exercise for organizations that should be working together but too often do not.

2. Git ‘dem menners. A co-professor, Jason Mendelson of the Foundry Group, makes merciless fun of my Nebraska-bred pronunciation of the word “mentor” because the ‘t’ gets swallowed. The word comes out “menner.” In Year Two, the NVC figured out the importance of “gitten’ ‘dem menners.” Each participating team in the NVC is offered an expert community mentor with background in the team’s area. Mentors agree to take at least two meetings with their assigned NVC team. This allows great relationships to go forward by choice, but gives unproductive relationships a stop date. The program works because mentorship is more powerful in the context of a real “problem”—e.g., a mentor advises … Next Page »

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Brad Bernthal is director of the Silicon Flatirons Center’s Entrepreneurship Initiative at the University of Colorado-Boulder and a faculty member of the Colorado Law School, where he leads the entrepreneurial law clinic and teaches classes on venture capital finance. Follow @BradBernthal

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2 responses to “An Entrepreneurship Competition Turns 5: Lessons Learned at CU-Boulder”

  1. Ben Buie says:

    Awesome thoughts Brad! I can’t imagine a better way to have ended my time at CU than attending that awesome event. It was amazing to see the growth from last year to this.

  2. Eben Johnson says:

    Well done on 5 years.
    My suggestions: 1) spread the word; 2) mentors are there to help; 3) any background and major is welcome; 4) show up, and; 5) have fun!
    Coach to multiple CU-NVC teams.