To hear its leadership tell it, there was nothing wrong with the Colorado Springs Technology Incubator’s success record — except the city’s culture.
They said the 14-year-old organization had no choice but to change its name and location and narrow its focus. Colorado Springs just doesn’t have the same environment for startups that incubators enjoy in Boulder, Fort Collins and Denver, they said.
It wasn’t their fault; it was ours, they said.
For the past three weeks, reporter Cameron Moix examined CSTI’s success record, compared it to those in other parts of the state and delved into the reasons behind the name change to Rocky Mountain Innovation Partners and the move to Catalyst Campus. The nonprofit incubator’s former goal was to foster technology upstarts and graduate them into the business community — creating jobs and opportunities for home-grown development. It’s seen as a vital role in cities across the nation, and one worthy of support with city, county and business dollars. The effort is successful in Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins — but has faltered in Colorado Springs. Culture is the culprit, according to CSTI/RMIP supporters.
Moix discovered that CSTI steadily lost financial support from public coffers in the years after CEO Ric Denton took over. The building it acquired with a grant from the state’s economic development office was sold earlier this year at a loss of $2 million. RMIP’s partnership with the U.S. Air Force Academy hasn’t produced any licensing agreements — and without a $250,000 grant from the state and the assistance of local businessman Kevin O’Neil, it might be in dire shape.
Faced with acknowledged financial pressures, the board decided to change its focus and name to rid itself of unnecessary legal entanglements. Now the incubator is an “accelerator” focused on technology transfer. But there are no agreements with any laboratory or educational institutions other than the Academy. It takes years — some say decades — for a product conceived in the laboratory to reach the marketplace.
With only one egg in its economic basket, RMIP’s future seems uncertain.
Even more troubling, Denton is part of a new three-member board that includes no educational or city government representation. It’s highly unusual for a staff member to serve on the board that is supposed to provide oversight and direction for the organization. In most nonprofits, the CEO answers to the board, and isn’t part of it; it’s an essential check on CEO authority. The fact there’s so little community involvement is troubling. Groups that were once part of the incubator have no role in the accelerator.
There are a few bright spots. The Rockies Venture Club from Denver entered into an informal arrangement with High Altitude Investors, an investment group associated with RMIP. The Denver club could bring additional dollars to the Springs’ entrepreneurial efforts.
While Academy patents could take years to develop into full-fledged products, some — particularly new aircraft engine technologies — are potential game-changers for the industry. If it’s successful in finding businesses to take on further research and development on those projects, RMIP could begin to see the cash flow it needs to survive.
Many other organizations are filling the entrepreneurial gap left by CSTI. They include groups like Epicentral, a downtown coworking space and Catalyst Campus, now home to RMIP and SCORE.
That proves RMIP’s assessment incorrect. There are enough bright entrepreneurs with brilliant ideas to move Colorado Springs’ business environment in the right direction, and to foster a business ecosystem that rivals those to the north.