10 Things to Know About BEN, Blackstone, and Colorado’s Gazelles
BEN Colorado’s twofold mission is to help the next wave of companies with high-growth potential scale up and become leaders in their industries while also helping to strengthen ties within and between important high-growth industries in Colorado’s economy.
To do so, BEN Colorado will create a network of entrepreneurs and executives with successful track records leading high growth companies. Those experts will offer guidance and advice to the leaders of promising companies.
The network will focus its efforts on Colorado’s aerospace, bioscience, digital technology, energy, and natural foods sectors.
For a detailed look at BEN Colorado and what it hopes to accomplish, Xconomy talked with BEN Colorado executive director J.B. Holston and Phil Weiser, dean of the University of Colorado Law School and executive director of Silicon Flatirons, a research center at the law school. Here are the ten key things about the initiative:
1) Who is running BEN?
Holston is responsible for making BEN successful in Colorado. He describes his job as being part facilitator, part “rainmaker.”
“My role is really chief concierge. It’s introducing people and making things happen in a seamless, egoless way,” Holston said.
That’s the modest way of putting it. Holston’s also responsible for making sure the network reaches a critical mass of companies, mentors, and master entrepreneurs, and that it provides value to the emerging companies from the very start.
“My time is largely going to be spent making sure the networks are well connected and that particularly that we’ve got a great group of committed advisers and a great group of companies,” he said.
Holston is in a good position to make all this happen because of the connections he’s made over the years as a prominent figure in Colorado’s tech industry. From 2004 though 2010, he was CEO of NewsGator, a software firm that makes collaboration tools for businesses and is now known as Sitrion. He remains chairman of Sitrion’s board and also is a member of the Colorado Innovation Network’s board of directors.
Holston will get assistance from Silicon Flatirons, which will provide a small support staff to help with programming and tracking BEN’s progress, Weiser said. The center, which is part of the University of Colorado’s Law School, is well known in local entrepreneurial circles for hosting conferences and giving organizations like New Tech Colorado a venue to host events and some financial support. Specific duties and the nature of the programming remain to be determined.
Silicon Flatirons will act as the program’s “steward” on behalf of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation to make sure the $4 million grant is being used wisely to create something with a lasting impact, Weiser said. The grant is for three years.
Having an established organization like Silicon Flatirons oversee the program was a priority for Blackstone.
“They were looking for both what’s the right region for them to develop that network in, and secondly who’s the right steward in that region,” Weiser said. “They had a two-pronged inquiry, and over time they began to become more enamored of Colorado and the potential that was here, and specifically in Colorado they looked around widely for different entities that had the capability to steward this grant and be a facilitator, and they concluded Silicon Flatirons was the right place to go.”
While Holston and Silicon Flatirons will lead the network, they also have an advisory board filled with highly successful entrepreneurs and executives to assist them. Among them is Zayo Group founder and CEO Dan Caruso, Rally Software Development CEO Tim Miller, Foundry Group managing director Brad Feld, and Wild Oats Markets and Sunflower Markets co-founder Elizabeth Cook.
2) How will BEN Colorado operate?
While BEN Colorado’s leadership team has an ambitious vision to bolster Colorado’s tech industry, its goals at this point remain more qualitative than quantitative. Exactly how BEN Colorado will achieve that vision remains to be determined.
“It’s still a work in progress, and BEN itself is a startup, so some of that will take root over time,” Weiser said. “Over the summer we’ll be refining and experimenting with the model, and at that point we’ll be building it to critical mass.”
First, BEN Colorado will round up advisers and companies that could benefit from mentorship. It especially is trying to recruit “master entrepreneurs” who can provide more detailed mentorship and work with individual companies over long periods of time.
“The idea is building a set of advisers, some of whom will become master entrepreneurs, and then having regular engagement points both with master entrepreneurs and the emerging entrepreneurial companies,” Weiser said.
Holston said BEN Colorado will be very flexible about what kind of help it offers, understanding that companies in different industries will have different needs. The key feature is likely to be introducing promising companies to mentors who have the right skills to help those particular companies.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of different models for engagement,” Holston said. “What the work looks like between advisers and master entrepreneurs and the companies will evolve as a function of what the companies need.”
“There might well be cases where some of the advisers get very engaged with companies for an extended period of time, because that’s a good fit. But there are going to be cases too where teams of advisers work for a relatively short period of time on a strategic issue for a company and help the company get on to a different path, and they won’t have to work beyond that,” he said.
It’s the kind of consultation that will mostly take place behind the scenes, Holston said.
Holston said partnering with existing organizations like industry associations is also possible.
3) What is BEN Colorado adding to the existing entrepreneurial ecosystem?
Colorado has become a hotbed of startup formation over the past decade, and the state has benefited from the rise of an “ecosystem” filled with organizations and companies focused on helping entrepreneurs.