Colorado Innovators to Celebrate Risking and Recovering from Failure

8/26/13Follow @MichaelXBD

Failure in the business world is a funny thing. Entrepreneurs who take risks and build innovative companies against long odds are celebrated, and their failures become part of their legend. But for a huge number of talented people with great ideas, fear of getting labeled with the other F word holds them back.

“Failure has been stigmatized in our society, which keeps people from taking risks,” said Mitra Best, who is PricewaterhouseCoopers’ innovation leader for its U.S. unit. Part of Best’s job with the consulting firm is to identify the traits shared by innovative companies and use them to help reshape the firm’s corporate culture.

Best has spent a lot of time studying how companies deal with risk and accept that they could fail. She’s also studied how companies and individuals recover. That’s turned her into something of an evangelist for the virtues of failure.

“I strongly believe if you haven’t failed in achieving your goals, you haven’t really pushed yourself hard enough,” Best said. How to accept risk, confront failure, and overcome it is something that “should be in every textbook, every business book, and every elementary school book,” she said.

Entrepreneurs who accept the risk of failure understand that, and even wear their failures as a badge of honor—even if they still sting a little. But other parts of the business world, government, and society at large still fear being labeled a failure.

Dispelling that stigma is part of the Glorious Failure Challenge, a business plan competition that’s finishing Thursday as part of the Colorado Innovation Network’s (COIN) annual summit.

Four companies from Colorado are competing for a $50,000 grand prize and $25,000 in in-kind services for the winner, which include office space, legal assistance, and cloud storage. The companies in second and third place will receive $13,500 and $11,750 worth of in-kind services.

Best will judge the event along with Foundry Group managing director Seth Levine and Matt Beal, an executive vice president and chief technology officer at CenturyLink.

Like any business plan competition, they’ll be looking for companies with innovative ideas, business plans that make sense, and market opportunities. But they’ll also look beyond traditional indicators of success and reward companies for tolerating and managing risks and the possibility of failure, according to the judging criteria.

The competitors

Talking with the founders or leaders of some of the companies, failure is something they acknowledge, but they keep it in perspective and certainly don’t dwell on it.

“What’s impressive to me is if there is a mistake or a failure, it’s the pace at which we can find it and move forward,” said Leslie Kimerling, CEO of Boulder-based Double Helix. “It’s a continuous innovation cycle….The thing about it on the business side that’s fascinating for me is how we can improve in real time.”

Double Helix is developing nano-optical technology that combines 3D optics and advanced computer image processing that could be used by biomedical companies and researchers. Their devices could enable researchers to create microscopic images that previously were impossible because of limitations created by the diffraction of light. The technology they’re using didn’t even exist two or three years ago.

The company believes its instruments will be important in developing the next generation of microscopes and other optical instruments, Kimerling said. Thousands of labs could make use of Double Helix technology, and that could translate into a $250 million market in 2020.

Double Helix will begin selling a beta version of its product this quarter, and a handful of researchers already are using it. As with any new product, they’re still working out the kinks.

Rach.io, another competitor, also has had to do some work to get its product right. The Denver-based startup is developing smart irrigation systems that can be controlled remotely by smartphones, tablets, or over the Web. Customers buy a control box for $199 that connect their sprinklers to the Internet via wifi. The first boxes will begin shipping early next year.

Rach.io has had to develop hardware and software capable of working with low-tech irrigation systems and high-tech devices, and that’s presented challenges.

“We’ve managed to push through a lot,” co-founder and CEO Matt Reisman said.

The company’s team has managed to get this far without raising a dollar from outside investors, and think they’ve found a sustainable business. They’ve also realized that as hard as they’ve worked on the hardware and software, customers don’t care all that much about what they’ve done, only that their grass is greener.

“People don’t care about the system, they care about their yards,” Reisman said.

Two other companies will be making pitches. Lenimen is a biopharmaceutical startup based in Denver that is developing diagnostic tests and treatments for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The company was founded by researchers from National Jewish Health in Denver and the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora.

The fourth finalist is Lightning Hybrids, a Loveland company that makes a “hydraulic hybrid system” for fleet vehicles like shuttle buses and delivery trucks. The system converts braking energy into energy that can be reused when a vehicle accelerates, and according to the company it makes vehicles 40 percent more fuel-efficient.

While the funds and in-kind support are significant, the exposure and potential to connect with investors or advisers ultimately could be a benefit that is invaluable, Reisman said.

“This COIN event is the opportunity of a lifetime for a company like ours,” he said.

Michael Davidson is the editor of Xconomy Boulder/Denver. He covers startups, venture capital, clean tech, energy, aerospace, telecoms, and whatever else happens above 5,280 feet. Contact him at mdavidson@xconomy.com. Follow @MichaelXBD

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