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CEO Roundtable: Macroeconomic impacts emerge as Boulder Valley innovators move past COVID

BROOMFIELD — Just as the innovative companies in the Boulder Valley have begun to move past the mid-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, macroeconomic factors such as slowing growth and tightening capital markets have begun rearing their heads. 

Local innovators discussed such challenges, along with areas of optimism, during BizWest’s CEO Roundtable on Innovation held Wednesday in Broomfield in the offices of Plante Moran.

“We have a large bioscience industry here in Colorado, but we still don’t have a big pool of investors” headquartered in the Centennial State, Orbit Genomics CEO Dede Willis said.

Lack of local capital pools actually became less of a problem during the COVID-19 era, she said, when business people of all sorts became much more comfortable with e-meetings. Founders no longer had to jet to the Bay Area every week to scare up funds; they simply logged on to Zoom. 

“If the pandemic did anything, it quickened the pace of adoption of technologies,” Comprise vice president of public relations Melissa Christensen said. 

Adoption of technology — artificial intelligence, for example — is “all happening so rapidly,” 23Zip Inc. CEO Alexia Parks said, so leaders of companies in innovative industries must be on the cutting edge.

AI has “helped me save a lot of time on what had been historically monotonous work,” LaborJack CEO Blake Craig said. 

But ChannelPartner.TV CEO Thomas Cross cautioned that “AI will be used as much against us as for us,” whether by bad actors such as hackers or by lazy companies using the technology to put out inferior versions of work previously performed more competently by human workers. 

The so-called AI revolution is beginning at the same time that employers claim to be struggling with recruitment and retention.

“Everybody’s struggling” with staffing, Craig said. “… Nobody is able to hire at the level they want to.”

Workers who are available often value flexibility, such as the ability to work from home, more than previous labor forces, he said.

Certain innovative industries such as advanced manufacturing and biotechnology require in-office, in-laboratory or in-factory workers. 

“The machines are where they are,” Prometheus Materials CEO Loren Burnett said. 

While workers might be flexing their muscles and demanding more from their jobs, investors are tightening their belts. 

“Across the board were seeing less deals and smaller total size of financings,” Venture Partners at CU Boulder executive director Brynmor Rees said, while a larger share of money is going toward later-stage companies, rather than seed-stage firms 

An alternative to traditional investment sources could be “regional innovation ecosystem funding opportunities,” he said, such as the Colorado-Wyoming Engine, a finalist for the National Science Foundation’s first Regional Innovation Engines competition.

Regardless of whether the economy is actually contracting, “we’ve been in an emotional recession,” Burnett said, with everyone “tightening up” and preparing for a downturn that may or may not come in the near future. 

The CEO Roundtable was attended by sponsors Jeremy Wilson and Jim Cowgill of Plante Moran; Aaron Spear and Wade Wimmer with Bank of Colorado; and Ashley Cawthorn of Berg Hill Greenleaf Ruscitti LLP.

Source: BizWest