Entrepreneurship in Boulder, Colorado

David Singerman

In recent years Boulder has routinely ranked as one of the best places to start a business, with an extraordinary density of startups and patents per capita. The same 2016 Entrepreneur ranking that placed Charlottesville as #4 had Boulder as #1. Despite natural advantages (famously, 300 days of sun a year) and demographic ones (70% of adults have a bachelor’s degree, and over 37% have a postgraduate degree), Boulder has lessons for other small cities seeking to cultivate their own entrepreneurship ecosystems—yet it has not been closely studied.

Much like the Bay Area, Boulder has profited from Federal research. The city is home not only to the flagship University of Colorado, but also to more than 15 Federal research facilities employing over 3,600 people, three of whom have won Nobel Prizes. Boulder also has a history of private-sector research, beginning with chemical companies in the 1940s, Ball Aerospace in the 1950s, IBM in the 1960s, and pharmaceutical spinoffs from CU Boulder labs in the 1980s. These companies’ executives established the first venture capital firms in the city.

However, longtime members of the Boulder startup community argue that their city’s true strength emerges from a singularly supportive and inclusive entrepreneurial culture, operating through formal and informal community institutions that provide guidance to new companies. Since the 1990s, small groups, coffee clubs, and meetups have assembled regularly to connect investors and entrepreneurs and to allow more established entrepreneurs to mentor younger or newer ones. A formalized example of this community is TechStars, a seed-stage fund founded in 2006 that puts 10 companies through an intensive development program each summer.

Boosters of Boulder’s entrepreneurship community emphasize a policy of “open doors” and “random meetings,” office hours and after-parties. In this analysis, the relatively small size of Boulder is a strength, not a weakness, allowing the community to be “particularly intolerant of bad actors,” as the venture capitalist Brad Feld writes. “If you aren’t sincere, constructive, and collaborative, the community behaves accordingly.”

Future Research

Future CIT.ee research will investigate which elements of Boulder’s entrepreneurship culture can be exported to other cities, even those that get less sunshine.