Creating the Southwest Innovation Corridor
The Telluride Venture Accelerator (TVA) is leading the charge to bring startup companies in targeted industry niches from conception to success. Western Colorado is an up-and-comer in the world of tech start-ups, and the TVA is spearheading the charge. With what is being dubbed the Southwest Innovation Corridor (SWIC), TVA and the Telluride Foundation are expanding on the success of TVA with a regional vision to unite communities across the western part of the state, this non-profit mission of the TVA will have a positive impact by creating an environment where companies have access to funding, facilities and work forces. Many small communities have some of the necessary resources to help small business succeed, but through regional efforts to encourage collaboration, Thea Chase, Director of TVA and the new regional coordinator, is confident that Western Colorado will continue to gain traction in the exciting world of innovation-based startups.
“The majority of accelerators, such as Y Combinator [in San Jose] and TechStars [in Boulder] focus largely on internet and technology companies,” says Thea. “TVA differentiates itself by targeting companies making innovations in the industries of outdoor recreation, travel and tourism, health and well-being, and natural resource management. This fits really well with Telluride. Most of the people involved are passionate about the outdoors. Also, millennials want to be able to recreate as well as work and succeed.” Anyone familiar with Telluride can agree that this one of the loveliest places on earth to enjoy the outdoors.
TVA was started by the Telluride Foundation to help smooth out the economy in this mountain resort town. “We were vulnerable to shocks in the economy, since we are heavily real estate and tourism driven,” says Thea. “Telluride wants to be a national, even international, hub convening around entrepreneurs and innovation.” With this in mind, TVA launched with its first class in 2013. Four companies were chosen from almost 100 applications received. For a stake of 5% in the company, these start-ups received $30,000 in capital, access to world-class mentors, and a living-expense stipend so they can live and work in Telluride for the five months of the program. Office space, infrastructure needs like high-speed internet access, and industry-specific needs are provided as well, along with in-kind services from local businesses and perks offered through companies such as IBM and Rackspace. At the end of the program, which includes building and testing their business model and launching the venture under the guidance of mentors, each company has the opportunity to pitch their company to investors. Over the past three years with three classes of program participants, more than $12.5 million has been raised for 19 companies.
Unlike a business incubator, most accelerators are not concerned about where their teams end up after graduating from the accelerator program. “Some companies stay in Telluride or surrounding area, like ProEditors, an automated video editing software company, and TravelRecon, a tech travel company” says Thea. “These companies can be based anywhere as long as there is screaming fast internet. Some go elsewhere. We have graduates in Montrose and Denver, and Element Pet Nutrition is in Ridgeway for access to local, sustainable ranches to source their raw materials and affordable manufacturing facilities. So far 80% have stayed in Colorado, other companies have chosen to locate in Portland, San Francisco and Maine.
A big part of attracting companies to the region is bringing communities together to provide resources for ongoing growth. “Economic development has traditionally measured success in terms of luring large companies to relocate using methods like tax incentives,” says Brian Watson of LAUNCH. “The TVA’s approach is to bring in small companies, give them the tools to succeed and have them grow in the area. This means they are invested in the area. It’s the new economic development and is a long-term strategy.”
Thea says, “We do things differently than Denver or other urban areas because we are largely rural. Our approach is: Let’s work on this together across Western Colorado to support each other, not compete. We want to build the ecosystem to support innovation-based companies throughout the region.” To that end they are teaming with the expanded engineering department at Fort Lewis College and with SCAPE, the Southwest Colorado Accelerator Program for Entrepreneurs in Durango. “We want to work with engineering students and faculty to inspire new technologies and business ideas and help them test the feasibility and then launch through access to mentors and investors,” says Thea.
“There are a number of assets that are needed for a successful business start-up,” says Brian. “You need ideas, capital, a work force and of course infrastructure like high-speed internet and office or manufacturing space.” With their proven track record of attracting high-quality start-ups to the region, and the region-wide collaboration to give these companies a “soft landing” to stay, TVA is spear-heading an exciting shift in the way the world sees the Western Colorado, and perhaps, too, in the way we see ourselves.