Gov. John Hickenlooper announced on Monday the creation of a statewide initiative designed to bring together inventors and entrepreneurs with an aim of increasing the number of manufacturing jobs in Colorado while boosting the state’s reputation as a hotbed of innovation.
Pointing to areas around the country that combine cutting-edge research with market-shaking entrepreneurial zeal — from California’s Silicon Valley to comparable corridors in Massachusetts and North Carolina — Hickenlooper said it was time for Colorado to do what it can to join those ranks.
The state, he said, has “The Colorado advantage — we are almost perfectly poised to be a center where (there is) that kind of acceleration of taking a new idea and translating it into new jobs.”
Key to Colorado’s edge, Hickenlooper said, is the high concentration of federal research laboratories, including the National Renewal Energy Laboratory in Golden, as well as powerhouses of innovation at the University of Colorado, Colorado State University and the Colorado School of Mines. There’s also a thriving start-up community residing in Colorado, but too often, Hickenlooper said, it’s a chore getting ideas from one side out the door and to market through the other.
“This will be a very focused effort to make sure we are able to build on all the innovations coming out from all of those places,” Hickenlooper said.
The Colorado Innovation Network — dubbed COIN — will be run out of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade but, aside from some staff time, will be funded entirely by private donations, including seed money from the Allen & Co. investment bank, Colorado National Bank and Arrow Electronics, a firm that is moving its corporate headquarters to Colorado in part because of economic development plans already unveiled by Hickenlooper’s administration.
The initiative builds on two sets of statewide economic development proposals that have taken shape this year. Starting in January, Hickcnlooper toured the state to elicit “bottom-up,” locally generated plans to spur the economy and unveiled a document called “The Colorado Bueprint” in August. Earlier this summer, Hickenlooper teamed with Colorado’s two U.S. senators, Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, to formulate a report suggesting how the state could leverage the state’s high concentration of aerospace, biomedical and alternative energy industries. Creating the COIN initiative checks off boxes on both those to-do lists, Hickenlooper said.
Bennet said the enterprise was exactly the kind of thing government should be doing to attack the disconnect between an efficient economy and American workers who aren’t reaping the benefits of increased productivity.
“Our economy has never been more productive than it is today, more efficient than it is today,” Bennet said. “Technology has made that possible, competition from abroad has made that essential.”
Calling COIN a “mechanism to organize around,” not just a rhetorical construct, Bennet added, “There’s no reason Colorado can’t be the leader of innovation in the nation, can’t be the place where we can say innovation is rising instead of falling.”
“COIN is designed to connect inventors and entrepreneurs and surround them with the access points needed to build businesses and enterprises,” said Ajay Menon, named on Monday to head COIN as the state’s first Chief Innovation Officer. He’ll spend about 20 hours a week in the new position while continuing his full-time job as dean of the College of Business at Colorado State University.
Menon said his team has been inspired by a similar project undertaken at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With $3 million direct spending, he said, MIT was able to generate 142 new ventures and bring in roughly $850 million in outside funding.
Menon’s boss, CSU Chancellor Joe Blake, said he has high hopes that COIN is the right approach at the right time.
“I think you will see an improvement because of the very concept of trying to tie together and connect innovation and entrepreneurs,” Blake said. While he noted that Colorado already has good models for research facilities working with the private sector, “The whole issue today is how we can accelerate connectability, and how we can actually show results.”
Blake said Menon’s new role with the state organization perfectly fits his mission at CSU.
“CSU’s model today is, what can we be doing to rebuild Colorado’s economy,” he said and then answered his own question: “Exactly this, the creation of jobs through innovation.”
Other key players in the operation will include COIN’s executive director, Kelly Quann, who will be on loan to the state from Deloitte Consulting’s Strategy and Operations division. Tami Door, president and CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership, plans to bring together leaders from a diverse set of communities around the state — from Durango to Pueblo — to discuss how innovation drives development in places outside established high-tech corridors.
Hickenlooper emphasized that COIN will operate across the state and not just grease the wheels already in place across the northern Front Range. He said it’s an approach he determined was key while assembling the “bottom-up” economic development plans gathered around the state.
“There’s no one more entrepreneurial than a dry-land farmer, and there’s no better centers of innovation than rural Colorado,” Hickenlooper said. “This approach, though it’s focused on the larger universities to a certain extent, is going to bring the entire state together. I honestly, in my heart of hearts, think that Colorado is, from east to west, north to south, is the most innovative state in the country. We just haven’t brought it all together.”
Organizers are planning an innovation summit for next summer and said they’ll be able to point to jobs, capital investment and a less quantifiable mark of success — whether the activities of COIN change public perception about Colorado.
“We can measure how Colorado is thought of,” Hickenlooper said. “Do people look at Colorado as a center of innovation? It’s very hard to move that needle, but very powerful when you can move it.”