Startup Colorado: How Colorado's Rural Accelerators Drive Innovation
This blog was written by Joy Martin and originally published by Startup Colorado and is being reposted with permission.
In 2019, Noah Schum and Jake Thomas were scheming the idea of a compact bathroom kit for outdoor adventures. By utilizing the power of mycelium fungi, the space-saving kits would tackle the growing problem of human waste in the backcountry. It could be used by trail runners, van lifers, and, well, anyone who’s ever had “to go” outside. The product seemed timely, and the impact, far-reaching. They’d call it PACT. The concept was scribbled on paper. But would it ever make it off the page?
In late 2020, Schum moved from Denver to Crested Butte and attended a coffee meet-up at Gunnison’s Innovation Creativity Entrepreneurship lab (ICElab). Since 2016, ICElab has been operating out of Western Colorado University as one of the dozens of business resource programs popping up in rural Colorado. These incubator and accelerator programs like SCAPE in Durango or CoVenture in Carbondale help entrepreneurs innovate new ideas and determine how to accelerate, or scale, those businesses once they’re established.
ICElab’s monthly gatherings invite local business owners and entrepreneurs to share updates, resources, and insights into their endeavors. Buzzing from the caffeine and creative sparks, Schum pitched PACT to his new friends. He received positive feedback and was encouraged to apply for ICElab’s Moosejaw Outdoor Industry Accelerator, an eight-week program that receives applicants from nearly all 50 states. Out of the 10 teams chosen as finalists, only four are invited to enter the program. Schum wanted to be one of them. He accepted the challenge to move PACT from paper into a full-fledged business plan.
Rural Accelerators Provide a Different Experience for Entrepreneurs
PACT Outdoors co-founder Jake Thomas has lived on Colorado’s Front Range for years and is familiar with the incubator-accelerator concept. He’s noticed that tech companies based outside of Colorado are usually the focus of these urban-fueled entities. The difference with rural accelerators, Thomas speculated, is that they’re trying to cultivate, and support, local businesses.
“In [ICElab], the people who are teaching and mentoring are members of the community,” Thomas said. “It’s rooted in community. Of course, you can find accelerators in a bigger place, but the interdependency and willingness to support are so strong in rural Colorado. It’s baked into the atmosphere. There’s also a long-term mindset around local government that seems outside the norm, a commitment to creating high-paying, sustainable jobs.”
In addition to the Moosejaw accelerator, ICElab also offers additional business development programs. Schum and his business partner Thomas enrolled in a two-week pre-incubator program, which welcomes local businesses to explore their business ideas. Schum and Thomas scrutinized the PACT plan, gaining momentum and structure as they transitioned into ICElab’s two-month incubator program. Every week, they worked with mentors to fine-tune the product, develop a marketing strategy, and connect with legal and financial experts. Their application was accepted for the Moosejaw program.
For Moosejaw, the selected teams move to Gunnison for five weeks where they’re introduced to Gunnison’s thriving business community. Led by ICElab director David Assad, Moosejaw participants build out extensive financial models to prepare the best pitch possible for potential investors. Assad said fundraising is the biggest hurdle for companies trying to break into the market. Venture capital firms are more interested in investing in tech companies, which offer a higher potential for astronomical returns, and thus a higher potential for zero returns, he said.
“It’s like baseball: you can hit more singles than home runs, but you can still win a game with singles,” Assad said. “We try to show the power of singles through solid financial projections. Investors are always excited to see in-depth financials. We put the time in, and it pays off.”
Another essential component of accelerator programs, like Moosejaw, is that companies run product tests each week. Thomas said it required them to experiment with imperfect, messy ideas—things they never would have tried otherwise. It was a huge confidence boost.
Finding the right fit for your business with a rural accelerator program
“Colorado shines as a state for supporting startups and entrepreneurship, especially in rural communities,” said Brittany Cupp, program and community manager of Southwest Colorado Accelerator for Entrepreneurs (SCAPE).
Located in Durango, SCAPE was created in 2013 to support entrepreneurs and the digital economy in rural Southwest Colorado. Through education, mentoring, and funding access for startup companies, SCAPE aims to create more high-growth, job-creating companies in the Four Corners.
While ICElab emphasizes educational programming, SCAPE focuses on growth strategies. In SCAPE’s six-month accelerator program, participants are introduced to regionally based investors who also serve as business mentors. This unique network of 65 individual investor-mentors includes a mix of retired local business leaders and corporate dynamos who have moved to Durango from cities like San Francisco or Dallas, bringing globally groomed expertise and deep pockets. These new arrivals seek out opportunities to invest in the community, and often SCAPE is their first stop.
“SCAPE’s primary support comes from individuals who are passionate about giving back and helping the next generation of entrepreneurs,” Cupp said. “They believe that your success is our success. If they see returns, cool, but it’s really a philanthropic approach. It’s all about helping companies be the best they can be.”
“[SCAPE] got me thinking in an entirely different framework about business, how to grow, and how to sell products,” said Jon Rosenberg, 2020 SCAPE graduate and founder of Cold Case Gear. “There are always people who want to help. You just have to be curious, ask, and be open and honest about your goals.”
Rosenberg’s wife is a professional photographer, so when her camera battery and smartphone died on the first day of a frigid, winter backpacking trip, Rosenberg took it personally. The inconvenience inspired him to embark on a mission to craft the world’s toughest phone case that could handle the most extreme elements. After forming a business plan and posting a Kickstarter campaign, he connected with SCAPE. Thanks to SCAPE’s vast network and the one-on-one mentorship Rosenberg received, Cold Case Gear released its flagship waterproof West Slope Case sealed with a lifetime warranty.
“I’m 34 and I love this about my generation: we created freelance working and now we’re starting e-commerce businesses where everyone says you can’t do it from,” said Rosenberg, who lives in Pagosa Springs. “As long as you have a good idea, access to the internet, and people who want to support you, you can be in business wherever you are. Why not live where you want to recreate, where you find peace? We’re changing the narrative.”
A year after Schum had coffee at ICElab’s coworking space, he and Thomas sold their first PACT kit. They’ve since gone on to win the Outdoor Retailer Innovation Award. Though their incubator experience ended in 2021, Thomas and Schum are still reaping the benefits of ICElab through continued professional connections with like-minded creatives.
“The program never really ends,” Thomas said. “Because it’s more than the program. I don’t know where we would be without this community. It’s impossible to put a monetary value on what we’ve received as a business. We’d still be hanging out in our pajamas knocking the idea around without them.”
Startup Colorado was founded in 2011 by Phil Weiser and Brad Feld at the Silicon Flatirons Center at the University of Colorado Law School. The initiative initially focused on supporting startups on the Front Range, and the effort to support entrepreneurship across the entire state is the latest evolution of Startup Colorado. Since 2017, Startup Colorado shifted its mission to focus solely on the foundation and success of the State’s rural-based entrepreneurs.