Rocky Mountain Innovation Partners brings first seedlings of innovation ecosystem to Springs
Monday July 20, 2015
COLORADO SPRINGS -- The final piece of Colorado’s tech puzzle is falling into place, and it begins with one of the state’s oldest institutions.
In May, the fledgling entrepreneurial incubator Rocky Mountain Innovation Partners received $250,000 in state-funded grant money to bolster the technology ecosystem in Colorado Springs. The grant was won on the strength of a new and promising partnership with the Air Force Academy, one of Colorado’s oldest research universities and the final one with very few local connections to the private sector.
“From an economic standpoint, it you take a hard look at what makes any region work, whether it’s Pikes Peak or Boulder or Silicon Valley, you’ll always find there is a strong research university engaged in lots of sponsored research,” says Ric Denton, CEO of RMIP. “That is vital to capturing the technology and converting it to commercial technology.”
And as a military university, the AFA is incredibly well funded. The university’s research labs receive roughly $60 million in sponsored funding each year, according to Denton, who says “it was almost a no-brainer” to approach the AFA labs. As the largest research institution in southern Colorado, that level of financial backing put it high on the list of tech-transfer partners.
“But technology transfer is difficult,” notes Denton, who’s the former CEO of RMIP’s smaller predecessor, the Colorado Springs Technology Incubator. “You have to get in on the ground level where technology starts, then turn that into something that can be useful for patent. It’s a long slog — it doesn’t happen overnight.”
State grants are the first step in the right direction. During the early stages — RMIP was officially founded in March 2015 — the organization will act as a bridge between AFA and entrepreneurs based in Colorado Springs. It also will link those same entrepreneurs and start-ups to interested backers, including the local angel investor-group High Altitude Investors.
RMIP’s web of well-established partners drew the attention of the state. The recent grant, awarded by the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT), is part of a multi-year program that bolsters the relationship between entrepreneurs and their benefactors: universities, investors, the state itself.
Over the past decade, Colorado’s startup scene has exploded. OEDIT has awarded money to aerospace apprenticeship programs, on-site teacher training and Colorado Mesa University’s innovation center.
But the bulk of tech-transfer activity has been relegated to Denver and Northern Colorado. OEDIT saw RMIP as the final piece in the statewide puzzle, or more aptly, the final seed in a blossoming ecosystem.
“This is huge,” says Michelle Hadwiger, OEDIT’s director of corporate development. “It creates an ecosystem along the technology corridor, all the way from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. If the hub has traditionally been the Denver/Boulder region, this is another spoke on that hub. It’s a way to really develop those tech ecosystems in areas where they just haven’t been before.”
‘A hard business’
As Denton says, technology transfer is not simple or quick. Research at a university can take 10-plus years before it leads to a commercial product.
“Technology transfer is a hard business,” says Walt Copan, RMIP’s director of technology transfer and innovation. “It’s complicated and there are many moving parts, so our goal is to really make things simpler for the research institutions and smaller partners, as well as the corporate partners.”
As a tech-transfer bridge, RMIP executives wanted to begin with AFA and local, homegrown businesses built around burgeoning industries. Thanks to the academy, Colorado Springs has become a sort of cyber security hub, Denton says, with multiple contractors spread across the region.
“We see an opportunity to knit together that community,” Denton says of connecting the local tech community with AFA labs and researchers. “R&D is our main interface, and we want to show we’re interested in really supporting what they do, bringing it from the university to the corporate sector.”
Along with cyberspace, AFA is involved in several other promising projects, although Denton and Copan say most are in the early stages of development. But RMIP already has a full-time employee on the ground floor at AFA, slowly going from lab to lab and identifying what technologies are ready for the prime time.
“We want to bring a new, higher level of interactivity to the region, in terms of collaboration and partnership,” Copan says. “You’re going from basic materials to software systems to avionics (at AFA). We want to bring those technologies to our partners.”
In a new spin on the private-academic partnership, RMIP wants to make AFA labs available to small startups. The academy is home to 3D printers, a wind tunnel and more equipment too expensive for small entrepreneurs. As part of the SoCo ecosystem, Denton hopes to make student labs available for commercial partners during school breaks.
“This happens all the time,” says Denton, referring to similar agreements at University of Colorado-Boulder and Colorado State University, “But I’m not sure if it happens the way we’re thinking. We want to make those facilities available on a very flexible basis, for industry partners of all sizes.”
Top to bottom
RMIP is still relatively new, but it’s tapping into momentum felt in tech hubs across Colorado.
“We’re trying to create more opportunities outside the Front Range, but that’s where the ecosystem exists right now, with the university labs and other resources in Denver,” OEDIT’s Hadwiger says. “It’s about developing the pipeline. The better the opportunity for tech transfer and development, the better the opportunity for growth.”
For Denton and Copan, the grant will help RMIP reach a broader partner base at a much faster rate. Again, tech transfer is a slow business, and it will still take a few years for the final pieces to fall into place.
That’s where RMIP comes in.
“Every technology and every business has their own unique twist, but there are some basic rules for launching a startup company and finding the right talent and getting off the ground,” Copan says.
“We’re excited to meet these unmet needs in our state, and we hope to see definite economic impact as things move forward. That can cascade across the state and, hopefully, across the nation.”