If Colorado businesses and politicians want to foster an environment where innovation can thrive — and jobs are plentiful — then they need to collaborate in a number of areas, including luring venture capital to the state, setting aside partisan bickering, and encouraging government officials to take a longer view when it comes to investment, regulatory and tax policies.
That’s what representatives from the state’s aerospace, bioscience and renewable energy industries told U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall and Gov. John Hickenlooper at a roundtable presentation on June 24 at the Louisville offices of Sierra Nevada Corp. The company designs and builds spacecraft, including the Dream Chaser project — a potential successor to the Space Shuttle program to deliver astronauts into orbit — currently under development with an $80 million NASA contract.
The report attempts to answer a question raised by Bennet and expressed by Hickenlooper: “What does an innovation economy look like, and how do we accelerate it?”
Roughly two dozen business and academic leaders calling themselves Coloradans for an Innovation Economy met several times since the end of last year, when Bennet asked them to put together recommendations, and came up with the report filled with specific steps. Among them, the group suggests working to attract capital to the state, work toward creating a predictable environment for businesses, and for business and government officials do a better job communicating.
Noting that Colorado is evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters — a balance nearly unique in the country — Hickenlooper emphasized the importance of cooperation across party lines and among rival businesses in order to propel economic development.
“We have a much greater inclination to work together and to collaborate,” he said. “We’ve been saying in the last few weeks that collaboration is the new competition. In the old days, everyone talked about competition, how that would encourage growth, but, really, collaboration is going to do a much better job of accelerating that, and I think collaboration is the new competition.”
One suggestion was to create a Colorado Innovation Economy SWAT Team made up of representatives from the entire congressional delegation and state government, key industries and the state’s major academic institutions.
“We have response teams for emergencies, we have response teams if there’s a tornado or if there’s a forest fire, we have response teams that do a lot of things. I don’t know that we have a statewide response team to deal with economic issues,” said Mark Strangelo, Sierra Nevada Corp. executive vice president and one of the group’s co-chairs.
For example, he said, if a major company is considering relocating in Colorado, “It would be really useful for that company to hear from a variety of educational people, people like us who have moved here in the past 10 years, people who understand the different parts of associations that are relevant to the state.” He acknowledged that Colorado has energetic boosters but said that having a team in place instead of reacting ad hoc to opportunities will benefit the state.
Bennet said the SWAT proposal in particular appealed to him but cautioned against picking and choosing from the group’s recommendations.
The SWAT plan “should start as soon as possible,” he said. Taken as a whole, he added, “The recommendations together could make a really big difference, where one-off solutions just aren’t going to help.”
Other suggestions include eliminating the state’s business personal property tax, making Colorado’s public education system “the best in the nation,” and creating a pilot program in Colorado to streamline visas for high-tech immigrant workers.
Holli Riebel, president and CEO of the Colorado BioScience Association and a co-chair of the group, urged special attention to the venture capital needs of young companies. Colorado ranks eighth among all states in the amount of venture capital investment, but lags far behind states on both coasts. She suggested emulating other landlocked states that have created state or regional venture capital pools.
“We have quality deals here, but we need the opportunity for (venture capital firms) to take a look at what we have here in Colorado,” she said. Part of the puzzle, she said, is to make sure Colorado’s national labs and other fronts of innovation are fully funded. “It is critical we see those dollars flowing to our research institutions,” she said.
A common theme was the desire for government to look beyond its usual one or two year horizon.
“Whether it is government funding for research and development, government contracting opportunities or tax policy, we need our leaders to start thinking in terms of the next decade, not the next budget cycle,” the report reads.
Acknowledging that the federal government seems to be tied in knots over the federal deficit, the report nonetheless urged officials not to take a shortsighted approach.
“Though we strongly support your efforts to put our country on a path towards fiscal sustainability, we also urge you not to lose sight of those investments that will make our country and economy competitive over the long term,” the report reads. “We believe that these policy recommendations exemplify the type of investments our country should make to maintain its global competitiveness.”
Louisville Mayor Chuck Sisk brought the discussion down to earth a bit when he remarked on the city’s efforts to bring a possible Conoco Phillips research and training campus to the site once occupied by Storage Technology Corp.
“We can’t take these businesses for granted,” he told the group. “I’m sensing that we sit back and say they’re going to come to Colorado because Colorado’s such a great state. Well, they look at our education support, and we’re not such a great state. There are states that are chipping away at us right now. They look at our transportation and they find ways to say, we can’t get up (U.S. Highway) 36.”
Udall praised the group’s report and said he plans to make sure the ideas don’t languish.
“What’s key here is that there’s a pro-active spirit,” he said. “We’re a mountain state — you don’t climb a mountain by accident, you climb a mountain intentionally. We all have an interest in putting a plan in place and implementing it.”
Bennet set his sights high, comparing Colorado’s potential to Silicon Valley and thriving research corridors in Massachusetts and North Carolina, noting that, “all of those places have been very intentional … about creating an ecosystem where work can be done.”
It’s a realistic goal, he said.
“I do think there’s a very real chance Colorado can lead, because we have such incredible assets already, when you look at our universities, when you look at our labs, when you look at the businesses that are here and when you look at how educated our population is and how incredible our state is to live in,” Bennet said. “You add that all up together and say, maybe if we can actually get a plan together that could create some reliability for people, that we really could be the next wave of innovation in the country and in the world, for that matter.”
Pointing out that Colorado is ranked as one of the top aerospace states in the country — even though few realize it — Strangelo said all Colorado’s innovative industries need is the right push.
“There is a possibility of doing that type of technology corridor — not because it’s a dream, because it’s actually happening here,” he said. “Now the question is will it be facilitated to the next level.”