In 2014, I leaned into an opportunity to apply my entrepreneurial mindset and skills to ecosystem building that would build and strengthen regional innovation economies. I experienced the value of connecting nodes across public and private sectors to ensure benefits flow across all stakeholders in an ecosystem, lifting economic resilience.
When I started this work nearly a decade ago, I didn’t imagine that a pandemic would accelerate those efforts and lead to opportunities to serve at the national level and state level. Since March 2020, Energize Colorado has sought to “create a resilient and equitable small business ecosystem” and to meaningfully address the nearly half-billion-dollar gap in funding for women, BIPOC, veterans, and rural small business owners and entrepreneurs in Colorado.
Energize Colorado was a natural extension of my previous work leading regional ecosystem initiatives, advising governments, developing partnerships, and supporting innovation programs that connect businesses, universities, governments, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and startup communities to catalyze innovation and increase impact.
In April 2023, I concluded a three-year term as CEO of Energize Colorado, stepping into the role of Chair. Moving to the role of Chair of Energize Colorado gave me the opportunity to focus on Colorado’s entrepreneurial ecosystem by leveraging national programs emphasizing economic development through innovation.
And, since April 2023, I have led TechHubNow!, an initiative supported by Governor Polis and the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) that seeks Colorado’s federal designation as a Regional Innovation Hub.
Appointments to NACIE and the Center for American Entrepreneurship
In 2022, I accepted two opportunities to share my expertise in entrepreneurship and innovation at the national level. I joined the Advisory Board of the Center for American Entrepreneurship, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.–based research, policy, and advocacy organization that “works with policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels across the country to build a policy environment that promotes new business formation, survival, and growth.”
In the same year, I began serving a two-year appointment to the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship (NACIE), a federal advisory committee managed by the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship under Gina Raimondo, U.S. Secretary of Commerce.
NACIE is charged with identifying and recommending solutions to drive the innovation economy, including growing a skilled STEM workforce and removing barriers for entrepreneurs ushering innovative technologies into the market. The council also facilitates federal dialogue with the innovation, entrepreneurship, and workforce development communities.
In that role, from late 2022 into early 2023, I led a subcommittee of advisory council members tasked with shaping a $10B Regional Innovation Hub program that will be funded by The CHIPS & Science Act. The program prioritizes advancing technologies, building new businesses, and shifting talent patterns around diversity, inclusivity, and job opportunities. It will invest “catalytic” $1B over five years in 10 state ecosystems that qualify for Tech Hub Designation.
The Future of Tech Hubs
In April 2023, Governor Polis and the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) launched TechHubNow!, a new public-private initiative to accelerate statewide collaboration, highlight Colorado’s strengths as a tech hub, and bring together partners who will develop equitable, inclusive, and highly competitive applications for Tech Hub Designation.
TechHubNow! seeks to catalyze innovation and entrepreneurship in Colorado “through advanced technologies that deliver economic and national security.”
In the next phase of my work, I look forward to leading TechHubNow! and taking an active role in Colorado’s pursuit of Tech Hub Designation and funding from NACIE’s Regional Innovation Hub program.
COVID-19 has had profound effects on our lives and our economies. Since March 2020, I have led a team of spirited leaders and innovators from across Colorado’s private, public, nonprofit, and academic communities who are working passionately to mobilize much-needed resources and relief for Colorado’s small businesses, nonprofits, and contingent workforce. That collaborative effort has been formalized as a nonprofit, Energize Colorado, with a mission to help Colorado small businesses stabilize and, over the long term, thrive.
As CEO of Energize Colorado, I apply my expertise as an ecosystem builder to cultivate economic resilience in a critical segment of Colorado’s economy. In fact, local businesses employ approximately 1.1 million people or 48.2% of the private workforce for the entire state. Energize Colorado provides critical funding, education, mentoring, mental health resources, and other support to these businesses and individuals.
BRIDGING THE GAP, SEEDING THE FUTURE
Coloradans are resourceful and innovative, but building economic resilience for the long term will take a deliberate effort to enhance connection and foster engagement across sectors and business types. It will take a diverse and inclusive approach, empowering businesses to thrive through collaborative problem solving and innovative approaches to business challenges. Energize Colorado seeds that engagement, offering mentorship, knowledge sharing, and opportunities for partnership development, among other resources.
Because PPP alone does not provide enough interim support for many of Colorado’s small businesses, one of our first major efforts was to launch the Energize Colorado Gap Fund. The Gap Fund combines private funding with $20 million in federal money designated by the Colorado legislature with support from Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. The fund is open to sole proprietors, businesses, and nonprofits with less than 25 full-time employees, who can receive up to a $15,000 grant and a $20,000 loan for a possible combined total of $35,000 in financial assistance. The fund gives priority to rural, women, and BIPOC owned businesses.
Energize Colorado is a natural outgrowth of my previous work leading regional ecosystem initiatives, advising governments, developing partnerships, and supporting innovation programs that connect businesses, universities, governments, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and startup communities to catalyze innovation and increase impact. I’m proud to lead a team of Coloradans helping Coloradans, supporting our diverse business community through the next normal.
For local economies to drive growth and productivity, key decision-makers must invest in entrepreneurial companies. BigCos need to align with, learn from, and use startup talent, products, and services in order to build and strengthen the innovation economy.
The way ecosystem builders set the stage for BigCo-startup collaborations is paramount. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as putting startups in a room with BigCo leaders. Meetings between BigCos and startups often fall short when it comes to the kind of candid business discussions required for mutually beneficial outcomes.
As CEO at Cintrifuse, a public-private partnership in southwest Ohio and northern Kentucky, I led the effort to build high-value engagement between BigCos and startups with an approach that enabled BigCos to share business challenges, engage with emerging startup technologies, and support the scaling up of promising startup products and services.
MEET-UPS CATALYZE ENGAGEMENT
When we started our mission to catalyze startup innovation in Cincinnati, I already knew how impactful creating conversations between large companies and startups could be–but with 150 BigCos in the area there were too many companies for one-on-one conversations. We needed a different approach.
First, we took stock of the region’s technology landscape, paying particular attention to where large companies (with $100 million in revenue and higher) fell on the digital transformation continuum. We then identified innovation opportunities that could positively impact companies’ organic growth or efficiency.
Our next step was to forge connections. We decided to host informal, digital transformation “meet-ups.” We invited digital thought leaders and investors (entrepreneurs, academics, and government leaders) from outside the region or from other parts of the region to share their expertise on tech themes with regional BigCos.
The informal gatherings were a huge success. Company leaders learned how technology innovation could solve business challenges and they began to see startups as problem-solvers and potential collaborators.
COLLABORATION GROWS THE INNOVATION ECOSYSTEM
Key BigCo-startup relationships formed because my team and I created the right conditions. We sparked high-value, low-stakes organic collisions that fostered trust between BigCos and startups, paired stakeholders with the strongest mutual impact potential, and made the value potential real and tangible.
Our approach strengthened the region’s innovation ecosystem. Today, Cintrifuse has been nationally recognized for its role in developing over 500 startups, connecting more than 16 ecosystem partners, and engaging more than 30 large corporations.
This is the true work of an ecosystem builder: We deliver every program, activity, and introduction intentionally and with a maximalist mindset so that collaborations can form and build momentum across the entire ecosystem.
Universities are often at the heart of innovation corridors. From academic medical centers spawning biotech startups in Boston to Carnegie Mellon’s robotics program catalyzing Pittsburgh’s innovation district, universities play important roles in the innovation economy.
Ecosystem builders can help universities engage in local innovation by aligning academic expertise and strategic priorities with the region’s long-term goals, connecting disconnected nodes within the ecosystem, and, when favorable, developing public-private partnerships.
My ecosystem building work has supported a number of notable university entrepreneurship programs and public-private partnerships. These include Miami University’s John W. Altman Institute for Entrepreneurship; the University of Colorado Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science; the Louisville Entrepreneurship Acceleration Partnership, a public-private partnership uniting government, universities, private companies, and entrepreneurs; and C3 (Commonwealth Commercialization Center), a public-private partnership focused on state-wide university commercialization strategy, connecting university technology transfer offices and leveraging access to legal, talent, and investment.
SPOTLIGHT ON MIAMI UNIVERSITY’S JOHN W. ALTMAN INSTITUTE FOR ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Miami’s differentiated approach to undergraduate entrepreneurship education is an excellent case in point that proves connecting university programs to other nodes of the ecosystem yields impressive results. From students pursuing initial funding from angel investors to professionals offering guest lectures, Miami’s institute intentionally connects students with other nodes of the ecosystem.
For example, students and faculty benefit from relationships with key regional organizations like Cintrifuse, Flywheel Sociaql Enterprise Hub, and CincyTech. Student-led startups receive mentoring, coaching and advice from more than 450 angel investors and venture capitalists, accelerator directors, startup founders, social entrepreneurs and others from organizations like Techstars, 500 Startups, and Silicon Valley Bank. This strong connectivity has catalyzed entrepreneurship regionally.
STRONG ENGAGEMENT AND GROWTH
As a result of Miami’s innovative, award-winning programming, many students have received insights from seasoned entrepreneurs, BigCo leadership, and investors to develop their own ideas and turn them into trail-blazing companies. Collectively, Miami student-led companies have raised more than $12 million in venture funding over the past four years.
As part of the RedHawk Launch Accelerator and Technology Commercialization and Startup Launch courses, 149 student-founders have launched 36 startups and high-growth companies. Three of the student-led startups raised initial funding and/or landed spots in startup accelerators (Cydekick, Akinda Co., and KCD Cosmetics).
What’s more, the program has attracted 128 angel investors, VCs, accelerator directors, and ecosystem builders from 12 states across the U.S. to participate in RedHawk Venture Pitch Competitions held at the end of the Fall and Spring semesters.
Investing in university programming is just one way to forge pathways between university assets and other nodes in an ecosystem. Such a commitment creates an environment for local communities to begin distinguishing themselves as innovation corridors, creating additional revenue and job opportunities, and developing a rallying cry around which innovators can unite.
Ecosystem builders are clear about the need for capital to drive entrepreneurial growth. What’s challenging is determining the best strategy to gain access to the right investors to get high-potential businesses and entrepreneurs on the road to product development and exploring fit in the market space.
Capital for startups had never been easy to come by in the Midwest. While building the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Cincinnati, I knew we would need to reach beyond the ecosystem’s immediate zip codes to catalyze growth for the long term. Getting fund managers from Silicon Valley to pay attention to startups in the Midwest would be no easy feat, but our national fund-of-funds strategy made it happen. Here’s how.
A FUND OF FUNDS FOR CAPITAL— AND CONNECTIONS
A “fund of funds” is just what it sounds like. It is a fund that invests in other funds instead of investing directly in startups. Structurally, it’s an investment vehicle run by a general partner (GP) who attracts and manages multiple limited partners (LPs), investing their money in high-quality venture funds with a proven track record of generating returns from a strong portfolio of startups. Fund of funds have been around forever. They’re a smart way to protect investors from the risk of putting all their money into one startup, but not enough cities in the Midwest were utilizing a fund-of-funds strategy to spark innovation.
Inspired by Chris Rizik’s Renaissance Fund, we set out to design a strategic fund of funds for Cincinnati called The Syndicate Fund. Managed by Cintrifuse (GP), it was designed to attract investors primarily from Cincinnati’s top BigCos (LPs) by investing in high-quality, early-stage venture funds from both inside and outside the state of Ohio.
Yes, that’s correct: We invested regional dollars in early-stage venture funds outside of the region. This was part of our national strategy. Investments made to venture firms across the nation with proven track records and alignment with the needs of our corporate LPs yield strong returns and, just as importantly, give us access to the world’s most emergent technologies, time-tested venture capitalists, and startup mentors.
CINTRIFUSE’S SYNDICATE FUND OPENS DOORS
Positioning Cintrifuse’s Syndicate Fund as an LP within the best venture funds in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Boulder, Chicago, Houston, and beyond gave us leverage for our regional BigCos, who gained insider knowledge of emergent innovations in their verticals. This resulted in leverage for our ecosystem builders, who learned from the best fund managers and company builders in the nation how to increase innovation investments multi-fold and thereby accelerate ecosystem success. And it offered significant relationship leverage for our local entrepreneurs, who gained outsized exposure and increased access to risk capital thanks to strong relationships with the highest performing venture funds in the nation.
Thanks to Cintrifuse’s Syndicate Fund, startups like NaviStone and many others received critical support to grow. NaviStone was on a solid growth path with a highly differentiated approach to direct mail solutions that required a new round of institutional capital. Because Cintrifuse was an LP in a major San Francisco fund, we were able to communicate the potential of NaviStone to the GP of that fund. The fund manager invested in NaviStone and joined its board of directors.
Now, the GP makes it a habit to visit Cintrifuse to meet other high growth-potential startups in the region when in town for a board meeting. Today, this one GP alone has mentored many other startups founded in the Cincinnati region. The GP has also pitched startups within their portfolio to our regional BigCos.
The work that is required for CEOs and Midwestern founders to gain access to VCs can’t be understated. Without the backing of an organization like Cintrifuse Syndicate Fund—one that vets opportunities and ensures that GP time is well spent—startups like NaviStone would have to work significantly harder to get in front of VCs willing to invest. The introduction alone is an example of the leverage that’s possible thanks to a national fund of funds.
BUILD RELATIONSHIPS, TRANSCEND REGIONAL BUBBLES
Our success with NaviStone and other startups was a direct result of our national relationship-building strategy. When we started the fund, we took meetings with hundreds of institutional early seed stage investors. We proactively sought investors we knew would be active, engaged mentors with investment philosophies that closely aligned with our LPs’ growth strategies.
Even though we couldn’t invest in all funds, the many meetings helped us build a strong national network of relationships with new venture capitalists. Now, innovation events held at Cintrifuse attract VCs from all over the nation who keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening in Cincinnati.
More regions can benefit from a highly engaged national fund-of-funds strategy. Instead of creating bubbles around regions and recycling the same resources over and over again, ecosystem builders can intentionally grow relationships with high-quality partners and sophisticated company builders who hold expertise in the tech categories that matter most to our regions. We can build networks of relationships that mutually benefit our investors, BigCos, and entrepreneurs.