The Sowing of a Startup Community in Telluride

8/1/13Follow @@lesamitchell

All it takes are the right seeds and soil for a startup community to take root and thrive. I recently saw this first hand in a seemingly off-the-beaten-path city—Telluride, CO.

I discovered Telluride’s entrepreneurial aspirations last summer, when I received a call from Jesse Johnson, an entrepreneur who relocated from New York City to Telluride and joined the board of the Telluride Foundation. When he described what the Foundation wanted to accomplish—support the Telluride Venture Accelerator (TVA) to recruit new talent into Telluride, coalesce the deep industry expertise across the Telluride community and infuse the startup bug into the high schools—I realized that it essentially wanted to replicate Startup Chile.

Since the Kauffman Foundation has closely watched and documented Startup Chile’s experiences, I fully applauded the idea. This was the first time I had heard of a community foundation funding these types of activities, which increased our enthusiasm and was the reason Kauffman provided the Telluride Foundation with a small seed grant.

Last week I saw how this community foundation’s efforts have spread throughout Telluride like a vine on a trellis when I attended the Telluride Venture Accelerator Demo Day. I had the honor of speaking to the community leadership (turns out a lot of former CEOs and investors live in Telluride), along with Colorado Governor Hickenlooper and Scott Key, CEO of IHS. The topic I addressed was “how to create a startup community virus in our city.” I also met Mayor Stu Fraser, who used to work for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City (where I live), the TVA entrepreneurs in residence (from San Francisco) who had helped with the program, as well as many of the program mentors. I was even approached by parents who wanted advice on online entrepreneurship education resources for their high school students. Of course, I encouraged them to get their kids involved in experiential learning opportunities like Startup Weekend, FIRST Robotics and Maker Faire.

The experienced entrepreneurs running the TVA had a commitment of $250,000 from the Telluride Foundation and other local funders, which supported an educational program, a mentor network and stipends for the four teams selected to go through the accelerator. The teams fell into three market categories where there abundant industry experience throughout Telluride—outdoor recreation, tourism, and natural products.

On demo day I witnessed a packed house of industry leaders and entrepreneurs from across the country who have some tie (even if emotional) to the Telluride community. Two of the teams pitching are fully funded today and the other two have partial raises complete. Three of the four teams were from Colorado and one team was from Maine. None had either funding or real go-to-market plans coming into the program, but they did have promise in the eyes of experts who evaluated their applications. The startups needed the expertise that surrounded them for four months, and quite a few now have boards in place that are comprised of individuals who have been on boards of both public and private companies in similar verticals.

According to Wikipedia, the definition of a community foundation is an “instrument of civil society designed to pool donations into a coordinated investment and grant-making facility dedicated to the social improvement of a given place.” While Global.li, High Desert Farms, Hyperlite Mountain Gear and Telluride Action Design were the first graduating class from the Telluride Venture Accelerator, I think they will be remembered as the seed corn of a startup community created by a community foundation in Telluride.

Lesa Mitchell is the Vice President of Innovation and Networks at the Kauffman Foundation. Her work is focused on understanding the barriers to firm formation and growth in new fields and defining network models that will support firm startup and growth. Follow @@lesamitchell

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