Seeds of innovation already in the ground

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The Denver Post ran a lengthy article recently about the “innovation culture” that characterizes Boulder. The article spoke glowingly about the entrepreneurial job-creation machine that exists in that city. For instance, it is noted that there are more than 8,900 businesses with fewer than 20 employees that call Boulder home. It also noted that most of these ventures are aggregated in one of four “industry clusters” that have sprouted there: software, biotechnology, natural foods, and outdoor products.

The article also noted that many of the ventures that emerge in Boulder are, unfortunately, transient. Once they grow large enough, they tend to relocate to other parts of the country where the venture capital money is more abundant.

Although the article was interesting, and it certainly provided an accurate picture of the Boulder entrepreneurial culture, it was not helpful in pointing out how such a culture comes about. Most mid-sized and larger cities in the United States today are striving to understand the causal factors behind the emergence of such entrepreneurial cultures. Most aspire to becoming the next entrepreneurial hotspot that is a “must go to” destination for hard-driving entrepreneurs.

Colorado Springs is currently striving to assume its rightful place among the entrepreneurial cities in the country. While the area is certainly not an economic “backwater,” it does lag behind some of its peers in its frequency of new venture creation and growth.

I’ve pondered the challenges the region faces publicly in these columns and elsewhere. I think most of the good people who are striving to light a fire under the region’s economic vitality are aware of our deficits, and are doing what is necessary to fix them.

The point of this column is to emphasize the likely evolution of the regional entrepreneurial culture, and to provide an antidote to overanxious folks who believe that it should have happened yesterday.

The likely evolution of the entrepreneurial culture is that it will be led from the bottom rather than the top. In other words, it is simply not possible, according to the existing research, to do anything from a top-down perspective to make an entrepreneurial culture arise.

The fact is, we don’t know where the next great innovation will come from. The people in the economic development profession in Austin, Texas, were not aware that a University of Texas undergraduate named Michael Dell was revolutionizing the computer business from his dorm room. But they were smart enough to stay out of his way as he grew the company to become a regional economic force. Today Austin enjoys the continuing economic contributions of scores of “Dellionaires” who invest in new startups in hopes of creating the next Dell Computer company.

The bottom-up development of a region’s entrepreneurial culture can’t be controlled or managed. It can only be cultivated.

The problem with the cultivation of entrepreneurship, in contrast to the cultivation of, say, corn, is that the growing season is not known in advance. That’s what makes it so difficult to do, and so perilous for someone who’s public career hinges on their ability to show “results.”

There are no results to show in the early days while proper cultivation is taking place. Cultivation requires the promotion and support of a variety of things, many of which may take years to come to fruition. Colorado Springs already has many of the basic seeds of a thriving entrepreneurial culture already sown into the region. We have an incubator that is full to the brim with innovative and exciting entrepreneurs of all ages. We have an angel investor group that has the capacity to make substantial investments in promising ventures. We have universities that are teaching entrepreneurship to students studying a variety of disciplines. We have vibrant networking and support groups. And we have an incredible number of high-net worth individuals ready, willing, and able to mentor promising ventures to success.

Somewhere, right now, in this region, there is a “Michael Dell” toiling away in a garage, basement, or home office who will upend the current malaise. The key to assisting the economic development process is simple: persevere.

There is not one thing that is needed; everything that is currently being done is needed. The ground here is fertile, and the cultivation of a bottom up entrepreneurial culture will, ultimately, someday, bear fruit. My counsel, for what it’s worth, is: Be persistent, but patient. We are on the right path.

Tom Duening is director of the Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Business and Administration at UCCS. He can be reached at tduening@uccs.edu.