Public-private partnerships, education and policy changes could help combat threats -- such as unstable funding, tight budgets and increases in global competition -- to the economic future of Boulder and Colorado, a slate of business, government and university leaders said Wednesday.
More than 200 people convened for the sixth annual Boulder Economic Summit, an event aimed at fostering discussion, education and action related to Boulder's economy.
The scope of this year's summit was broadened to a more regional and statewide outlook to address challenges facing a state with a strong backbone of publicly funded research.
The Boulder Economic Council, the summit's host, compiled speakers from across industries, educational institutions, government and research facilities to identify strengths, concerns and opportunities to ensure further economic growth.
On the federal level, U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said necessary actions to ensure the competitive position of Colorado and the nation include finding alternatives in the midst of sequestration, tax reform, immigration reform and putting a close eye on "U.S.A. Inc.'s balance sheet."
Colorado may be well positioned, Udall said, noting a 6.9 percent unemployment rate and improvements in the real estate market.
"But that's not good enough," he said. "We need to drive entrepreneurship and innovation."
To do so, investment should be made in education, especially the science, technology, engineering and math fields; research and development; and infrastructure such as satellites and technology such as unmanned aerial systems, Udall said.
Udall has backed efforts to have Colorado serve as one of six U.S. test sites for the unmanned aerial systems, or drones.
'Pipeline of human capital'
Research-focused universities also play key roles, said Peter H. Henderson, director of the National Research Council's Board on Higher Education and Workforce.
Henderson provided an overview of results from the National Research Council's 2012 report, "Research Universities and the Future of America." The report highlighted 10 actions for governments, schools and businesses to take in order to bolster economic prosperity.
Those actions include policy-related directives such as calling on the federal government to develop sustainable efforts to fund research and reducing regulations that could hinder the effectiveness of research. Other actions included increasing partnerships between public and private entities; making sure all people, including women and minorities, are represented in education and STEM fields; and having research and universities maintain a strong international contingent.
Michael V. Martin, chancellor of the Colorado State University system, cautioned that not only will there be a need to fill STEM-related jobs in the private sector, but also on the education side of the table because of the "out-migration of Baby Boomer faculty."
"I think that's a crisis we've yet to fully confront," he said.
Martin said two other challenges were the "great Colorado conundrum" -- the idea that the state excels at attracting highly educated people, but has below-average college graduation rates -- and a lack of focus in improving access to education for those with lower incomes.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, spoke further on education and immigration reform as being catalysts for a strong workforce.
Polis gave his support for President Barack Obama's push for universal pre-school, establishing computer science courses as core requirements as opposed to electives and expanding opportunities for women to receive training for higher-paying jobs.
He expressed cautious optimism for the passage of immigration reform proposals such as giving green cards to U.S.-educated foreign students who earn a master's or Ph.D. in STEM fields and visas for foreign-born entrepreneurs and investors.
"The biggest challenge we face is one of maintaining our pipeline of human capital," Polis said.
'World-class innovation scene'
Other potential solutions offered to combat decreased funding and increased competition from abroad involve public-private partnerships, said Clif Harald, president of the Boulder Economic Council.
CU officials including Brad Bernthal, director of entrepreneurial initiatives at the Silicon Flatirons Center, and Frances Draper, vice chancellor for strategic relations, made note of efforts under way at the university to connect businesses and entrepreneurs to researchers and students.
CU has played host to startup-focused events such as the bimonthly New Tech Meetup and partnered with commercialization-focused organizations such as the Innovation Center of the Rockies and has plans to further step up collaborations between businesses and researchers through a new Industry Connections office, Draper said.
Bernthal said he's "nervous" about the effects shrinking budgets and reduced funding will have on CU, but said the growth of the startup communities in Denver and Boulder could benefit the region as a whole.
"The stronger the perception there's a depth of offerings in this area, the better off we are," he said. " ... There's not that many places that can leverage a world-class innovation scene."
Contact Camera Business Writer Alicia Wallace at 303-473-1332 or firstname.lastname@example.org.