Summits, Grassroots, Failures: 5 Takes on Colorado Innovation Week

With Colorado Innovation Week drawing to a close and the Colorado Innovation Network Summit wrapping up Thursday, it’s a good time to look back at the week’s highlights (beyond Sal Khan’s presentation) and collect some thoughts about the event.

It was a stimulating and encouraging week that shows Colorado is thinking seriously about innovation and recognizes some shortcomings it needs to address. I hope it becomes an annual fixture, but the big thing is to keep the momentum through the next 51 weeks.

The summit offered a lot of food for thought, and here are five observations and opinions to digest.

1. There’s a lot of distance between the summit and the grassroots… Some of Colorado’s largest tech companies sponsored the summit and innovation week. The summit’s headline speakers featured several politicians including Gov. John Hickenlooper, along with CEOs and high-level executives from global companies.

It was great to see some of the biggest names in Colorado politics and business willing to be part of the event. But it also was a big contrast with events like local New Tech Meetups or startup weeks in Boulder and Denver—well, really almost anything tech related in Boulder. At those events you see entrepreneurs in hoodies with a lot of ambition but not much experience or funding. At COIN, there were a lot of accomplished execs in suits.

I don’t know whether that shows a disconnect that is a problem, but it certainly is a difference. Maybe events like COIN are the first step toward a greater cross-pollination of the two crowds.

2. …but the people at the summit recognize that. Hickenlooper is a former restaurateur who helped launch Colorado’s craft brewing industry in the 1990s, and he frequently reminds people of his background as a successful entrepreneur (especially with his reelection campaign starting.)

Hickenlooper has more credibility on the topic than most politicians, and it was good to see he began the conference acknowledging the best role the government can play is to be a convener.

He also joked that his glowing comments about Colorado and the flashy videos sounded a lot like Chamber of Commerce boilerplate. He was right, but should get points for self-awareness.

3. So who was Colorado Innovation Week for? Most local startup-focused events emphasize helping novice entrepreneurs. They tend to be about understanding issues like finding investors, improving pitches, connecting with potential employees, or just absorbing lessons from entrepreneurs who have built successful companies.

There was some of that at the summit. Most notably, Square 1 Bank co-founder and managing director Ken Fugate gave some good advice about how founders must be honest with themselves about whether they are building high-growth companies or family firms. The first type need venture capital, while the second probably should rely on traditional bootstrapping and funding methods.

Fugate also was honest about Colorado’s comparatively small and fragmented network of angel investors, and how having a lot of small investors in a company can stifle its growth.

On the same panel, Noodles & Company chief financial officer Dave Boennighausen talked a little about the perils promising companies can face when they accept money from private equity investors.

But otherwise, it was executives from established companies and policy makers talking with each other about innovation. That’s fine—politicians need to know what executives are worried about, what they can do, and how not to stifle innovation. Executives of large companies need to know what other companies have done to stay nimble and entrepreneurial.

It was also great to see Greg Maffei, who as president and CEO of Liberty Media is one of the most highly paid executives in the world, share the stage with Jim Deters, who has helped build and sell a $90 million tech company and now works with fledgling companies at Galvanize. Hopefully the next time they get together for a discussion like this they’re talking to startups that work out of Galvanize.

4. “Failure” seems like a success. One of the most interesting parts of the summit was its “Glorious Failure” business plan competition. Four companies competed. The winner was, which designs smart irrigation systems for homeowners. That requires it to create software and apps and master hardware design for the device that connects sprinklers to the Internet.

Loosely speaking, the other competitors were in biotech, cleantech manufacturing, and advanced optics.

It was nice to see the range of companies there. Hopefully the Glorious Failure Challenge continues and draws more companies. There are a growing number of business plan competitions in Colorado, but none matches the $50,000 grand prize at the event.

“Glorious Failure” also was unusual for the makeup of the audience—the events run by universities often have friends and families in the crowd. Getting on the radar screens of the COIN Summit crowd will hopefully help the competing startups, help organizers draw more attention and startups to the next event, and persuade companies pitch competitions are events worth backing with time and money.

5. Marketing: It’s Our Nature. Whatever else comes out of the summit, it is sure to have one lasting legacy—although instead of being about innovation or entrepreneurship, it’s a triumph of marketing.

Hickenlooper and Colorado’s chief marketing officer Aaron Kennedy (founder of the Noodles & Company (NASDAQ: NDLS) restaurant chain) unveiled the new, official state brand and slogan Thursday.

The brand is a green and white image of a mountain that resembles Colorado’s license plate, while the slogan is “It’s Our Nature.” They soon will appear on state documents, vehicles, drivers licenses, and buildings, and there is a push to get private companies to use the logo and slogan.

The state said some of Colorado’s top marketing and PR firms donated $1.5 million in pro bono services, and the state put in $800,000 in funds leftover from the Colorado Tourism Office and Statewide Internet Portal Authority.

Of all the events at the summit, the brand reveal received the most media attention by far. It’s understandable—the state spent months working on and promoting the campaign, and the money came from Colorado businesses and indirectly from taxpayers. Plus, Coloradans are going to start seeing it everywhere.

The people who ran the campaign did a great job and deserved the applause. But it did seem like a lost opportunity that innovation week’s climax and biggest ovation was for a marketing campaign.

Marketing is important, and Colorado does need to do a better job marketing itself as a great place to do business, both for established tech companies with global operations and for fledgling startups. For all the work I see from the grassroots, tech savvy people from outside Colorado often are still surprised when they learn what’s going on out here.

Maybe next year the climax of innovation week will be a major tech company announcing it’s moving to Colorado or opening up a major research and development center. Maybe a venture capital firm will announce it has closed a large new fund, or the governor will announce the creation of a state-backed fund for local companies. Maybe an entrepreneur will talk about how he or she built a company and guided it through a successful IPO.

That would be a triumph of innovation.

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