It is anticipated that by 2020, more than half the U.S. workforce will be self-employed — and that’s a statistic the Quad Innovation Partnership is taking very seriously.
The partnership — a collaborative program formed by Colorado College, Pikes Peak Community College, UCCS and the Air Force Academy — has hired an executive director and is on its way to opening a dedicated space for innovation and entrepreneurship in downtown Colorado Springs.
Local entrepreneur Jacob Eichengreen was named the program’s first executive director in August and has been working with the academic alliance to headquarter the partnership in a 2,000-square-foot commercial space in the basement beneath Loyal Coffee at 408 S. Nevada Ave.
PPCC President Lance Bolton said the college signed a five-year lease with property owners Darsey Nicklasson and Kathy Loo (developers of Blue Dot Place Apartments at 412 S. Nevada Ave.) and he expects to begin using the space in January, following a complete remodel.
“We think there’s a perfect synergy between our residents and the local small businesses,” Nicklasson said. “We have a long-term vision with [the Quad] for the space — it’s not just about being a landlord. Blue Dot is all about community-building, and we can’t wait for them to be a part of that. The whole idea comes from how we can improve our community.”
Eichengreen said the basement, which itself has entrepreneurial roots as a local bakery, will serve students and recent graduates transitioning out of school and looking to work for themselves in Colorado Springs. He said he foresees the space as being one in which entrepreneurs (or those interested in entrepreneurship) can gain momentum in the marketplace.
“We’re trying to think of the space as an asset,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out what type of stuff we can put down there that is really going to add value beyond simply a classroom or another makerspace or another co-working space.”
Eichengreen said the basement will feature space for events, co-working, meetings and could also serve as a marketplace for entrepreneurs to prototype their goods and services.
“Part of the thing that keeps students in town as they graduate is a sense of place — feeling like this is home, having a network of people and feeling like your aspirations are possible here,” he said.
When the city’s four preeminent higher education institutions originally announced their plans to partner in May 2014 to create what they then called a “Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurism,” the stakeholders were motivated by trends that showed young people moving to cities with more to offer in terms of non-traditional career opportunities. Rather than remain complacent, they joined together in an attempt to reduce the “brain drain.”
“If the students and alumni have relationships in the community outside of the universities, then they will be more invested in our town,” Eichengreen said.
The program and its resources are all currently conceptual and subject to change, but he said they are paving the runway for students and alumni looking to plug into the community.
“This is about helping people find a home in Colorado Springs — helping them reach their highest potential and pursue the innovation that drives them,” he said. “Our metric is alumni retention; our tool is innovation.”
During the program’s formation, leaders from the four institutions looked at models across the country in search of one the Quad might emulate. The biggest inspiration was found in Ithaca, N.Y., where there exists a similar partnership among Cornell University, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College called “Rev: Ithaca Startup Works.”
“Rev helps Ithaca entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses, offering modern workspaces with innovative office infrastructure, along with access to a vibrant entrepreneurial community, to make creating a business faster and easier,” the nonprofit says on its website.
When Bolton and CC President Jill Tiefenthaler visited Rev prior to Quad’s launch, they gathered a few tips for success. Among those were that it is critical to have an on-site director, it needs to remain an equal community partnership, and it should be active in engaging the local student population before graduation.
With those goals in mind, Bolton said representatives from the four institutions — adding UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak and USAFA Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson — met with a broker and got serious about looking for a home for the program.
“This is definitely the one that stood out -— the location and the layout are exactly what we were looking for,” he said. “When we were looking at locations, we were looking at spots that would be attractive to entrepreneurs and people who were interested in connecting with local businesses. We love the location for that reason — there are a lot of small startups in the neighborhood, and I think that feels very well aligned with what we’re trying to do as an institution.”
Bolton said the space is currently being called “The Basement,” simply out of convenience. A more formal name for the space should surface sometime around its launch in January.
The partnership’s 2015 pilot program was a small “cross-cutting discovery course” composed only of UCCS and PPCC students, Eichengreen said.
During the pilot, students listened to lectures from influential speakers and participated in challenges related to business planning, execution and marketing.
This year’s summer program included participants from each of the partner schools and focused more specifically on entrepreneurship, Eichengreen said.
“We’ve been taking a step back and taking a look at what we’ve done — doing a more comprehensive deep dive into the resources that already exist around town for students and alumni,” he said. “Responding to needs is really what we’re trying to do.”
The goal when the program was officially launched last year was to determine how it would work and what tweaks were needed to make the Quad something that could meet needs and fill gaps in the local ecosystem.
Eichengreen and the four community stakeholders plan to allow the program, as well as the space, to grow organically and fill gaps in the entrepreneurial ecosystem as they present themselves. He said the program will offer startup-intensive courses, but will make an effort not to replicate the work already being done at places like Epicentral Coworking, Catalyst Campus and the Small Business Development Center.
“Part of the realization that we’ve had is that we do have an incredibly robust startup support ecosystem, so the best thing for us to do is really to promote those linkages,” he said. “When you really don’t know what it is that you’re supporting, and you really just want to support the people, there’s an even bigger set of possibilities.”
Epicentral owner Lisa Tessarowicz said she is excited to see such an organization focus its efforts on retaining and supporting the region’s students and alumni.
“I don’t think the market is completely saturated with the resources — the organizations and companies — that entrepreneurs need,” Tessarowicz said. “I think our entrepreneurial community continues to grow and that we can always be providing so much more.”
Tessarowicz’s hope is that organizations like the Quad and Epicentral can work together to foster a cohesive ecosystem that provides support to entrepreneurs and strengthen the startup community.
“The cities with the strongest entrepreneurial communities usually have a really strong university presence,” she said. “If our local universities are focused on creating that community here, that’s a huge win for Colorado Springs.”