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Economic summit: University influence makes Boulder what it is

BOULDER — Whether looking back or forward, the University of Colorado has created an unmistakable influence on the state of the Boulder economy.

So said panelists at the annual Boulder Economic Summit Monday, held at CU Boulder but organized by the Boulder Chamber and the Boulder Economic Council.

The university created an atmosphere for innovation to thrive, multiple panelists said. Indeed, as noted by university Chancellor Phil DiStefano, the university created 175 new inventions just in the 2020-21 academic year, along with spinning off 12 startups.

But other factors also helped Boulder become a national center in multiple industries, notably the outdoor, natural products, technology, aerospace and federally funded research industries.

The outdoor industry benefited from the return of the 10th Mountain Division after World War II, which came back to create the ski industry, said Trent Bush, founder and CEO of Artilect Studio. Bush, who created his first outdoor product, snowboard brand Twist in 1989 while in high school, is the son of one of the early outdoor innovators who put Frost Line Kits on the market in the 1960s. Now, about 50 outdoor brands make their home in Boulder, he said.

Celestial Seasons, created by Mo Siegel, was among the early natural and organic companies, said Russ Forester, a senior vice president at Hain Celestial. Numerous natural and organic companies had their start here and then caught the attention of national giants. “Big industries began watching this industry and began gobbling up these smaller brands,” he said. “We have amazing operators here. They came because we have these great companies here.”

Scott Green, the former site director for Google in Boulder, said foundational aspects of the community — the university, the environment, the outdoor industry — all have served as talent magnets for the tech companies that were either created in Boulder by entrepreneurs or, in the case of big tech, wanted a piece of the entrepreneurial culture of the community. 

“In the late 1990s, the internet enabled a bunch of startups to grow globally. I came because of the entrepreneurship and outdoor living,” he said, noting his first tech experience in the community was with Email Publishing, which was later acquired by digital advertising company DoubleClick.  A company called SketchUp, a 3D modeling software company, was founded in 1999 and later acquired by Google.

Tech Stars and other investment engines also had their start in the early 2000s and helped to fuel the tech industry in the community, Green said.

Aerospace came to Boulder early with the creation of Ball Brothers Research Co. in 1956. One of the sons of the Ball brothers was looking to do something besides packaging, and the research company resulted and later morphed into Ball Aerospace as the university was tapped to help solve problems in the military’s development of the early space program. “This was before NASA or Sputnik,” said Michael Gazarik, a vice president of Ball Aerospace.

He credited factors such as Boulder’s culture of collaboration and innovation, its pioneering spirit, city support and the connection with CU Boulder as all helping make aerospace a primary industry in the community and region. 

National labs such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research came to be in 1960 as a result of interest in atmospheric science growing out of the university, said Sarah Swanson, executive director of Friends of the National, a fundraising arm of NCAR. Now, the nonprofit organization has 1,400 employees worldwide with 1,000 of them in Colorado, she said.

“It all came about because of the collision of the environment, education, and entrepreneurial spirit in the Boulder ecosystem,” Bush said.

Forester described it as “a passion” for the industries that make up the core of the economy in the community.

“Colorado is the number one place in the nation for aerospace per capita,” Gazarik said. “It’s all about community; it’s a wonderful place to be. It’s anchored by the University of Colorado, where 25% of our engineering employees are from,” he said.

The growth of primary industries isn’t without challenges, panelists said. High interest rates put a damper on investment. Lack of diversity makes it difficult to recruit and retain talent. Housing prices also make it difficult for startups to get underway while finding the workers they need, panelists said.

Calvin Pennamon, a director with Northrup Grumman, said remote work has been a particular challenge for the aerospace industry, which requires having people in person. He cited espionage as one reason. “We work on a lot of closed networks,” he said, noting that the company protects against “technology falling into the hands of those who didn’t put in effort in the development of it.”

Pyper Scharer, a senior account manager with Zayo Group, the creator of fiber networks around the globe, said Zayo also has struggled with remote work spawned by the pandemic. “Over the past eight months, we’ve been rolling out different strategies,” she said. As of now, Zayo workers are required to be in the office three specific days during the week, and can pick a fourth day to also be in the office. 

Panelists said that embracing social issues also is important for companies.

Pennamon said that “if you’re not embracing diversity, you have a company that will bleed people. To us, it’s in our core values,” he said of Northrup.

Source: BizWest