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CU Boulder’s Bottom-Up Approach to Innovation Drives Economic Development

By: Bryn Rees
Assistant Vice Chancellor, Research & Innovation at CU Boulder
Managing Director, Venture Partners

What does it mean to be an economically engaged university?

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At the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder), we are proud of our spinout companies – including leaders like Amgen, Ball Aerospace, and Inscripta – and how they have transformed and continue to transform entire industries. In the past year alone, CU Boulder spun out 20 new “deep tech” businesses from its research labs, and four CU Boulder founded companies from prior years achieved “unicorn” status (valuation >$1 billion). At the same time, and as we reflect on our progress as an Innovation & Economic Prosperity (IEP) University, we are careful not to lose sight of the very personal stories that are contained within the metrics of economic impact, as is the case of Dr. Nick Myerson.

Nick was a post-doctoral researcher in virology and helping to spin out a diagnostic technology he co-invented. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In a complete strategic shift, he took the reigns as CEO of the company, Darwin Biosciences, and within weeks had developed a SARS-CoV-2 test that replaced invasive nasal swabbing with saliva sampling, while returning results in less that 1 hour. Nick led the administration of more than 20,000 tests across rural Colorado and Nebraska and created jobs for 40 testing technicians in areas that were being hit hard economically. Nick’s story is just one from among the many new startups formed at CU Boulder, but exemplifies the meaningful ways in which university economic engagement improves lives and generates positive impact.

At CU Boulder, economic engagement is one way of embodying the university’s three-fold strategic imperative: 1) to shape tomorrow’s leaders, 2) to be the top university for innovation, and 3) to positively impact humanity.

Shaping leaders means creating developmental opportunities not only for internal personnel like Dr. Myerson, but also extending that mission into the community. During the pandemic, CU Boulder has run COventure Forward, a business mentoring resource that pairs advisors from across the university’s network with local companies needing additional resource under pandemic hardship.

Innovation has so many meanings. For CU Boulder, innovation is the creative process of challenging the collective mindset (including challenging one’s own mindset). One outcome of university innovation is the issuance of new patents, which includes the criterion of global novelty. In 2020, the CU System ranked in the top 20 of all universities in the world for issued US patents, driven primarily by CU Boulder.

An example of the final imperative – positively impacting society – is startup company Solid Power. Co-founded by Mechanical Engineering Professors Se-Hee Lee and Conrad Stoldt, Solid Power builds “solid state” batteries for extended-range electric vehicles. With over $600M in capital raised, including Ford and BMW as investors and partners, Solid Power’s Colorado facility provides not only local jobs and economic development but a technology that plays a role in reducing vehicle emissions globally.

Beyond the single example of Solid Power, the economic impact from CU Boulder’s innovative technologies and startups was assessed at $1.9 billion from 2014-2018, according to a study by the Leeds School of Business. Since the end of that period of analysis, CU Boulder startups have raised additional investment capital of over $2 billion, demonstrating the continued positive impact on the business community.

Innovation Case Studies

While the types of innovative products and companies discussed above are among the university’s goals, they are a result of very specific programs and initiatives, such as the three case studies included in CU Boulder’s Innovation Award application:

  1. To address the infamous “valley of death” and advance promising technologies along their path to commercialization, the Lab Venture Challenge provides seed funding and entrepreneurial training and mentorship in a format that unites the university and startup community.
  2. As part of its response to COVID-19, CU Boulder launched the Pandemic Hyper-Accelerator for Science and Technology (PHAST) to rapidly bring pandemic innovations to market. This partnership with Rockies Venture Club received a SPRINT Challenge award from the US Economic Development Administration.
  3. Using a strength-in-numbers approach and a regionally collaborative spirit, Destination Startup brings together leading universities throughout the Mountain-West to showcase their startups to investors from across the nation.

CU Boulder is honored to be included among IEP Universities and to be a finalist for the Innovation Award. With the utmost respect for our esteemed peer institutions, we offer three themes we have learned along our innovation journey (inspired in part by Brad Feld’s “Boulder Thesis“):

  1. Prioritize developing people – innovators over technologies, entrepreneurs over startups.
  2. Including everyone – more than ever, we know that inclusivity is not only a basic human value but also enhances performance and growth.
  3. Enrich Local Strengths – rather than trying to emulate other ecosystems, what is the uniqueness of yours and how can that be further developed?
  • IEP

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