Rarely is innovation more critical than during times of crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a host of new challenges and opportunities for Boulder Valley innovators who are navigating their way through — and hopefully eventually out of — this unprecedented era.
“Innovation was made for this kind of moment,” it is “a catalyst to get through the pandemic,” Innovators CoLab CEO Thomas Knoll said during BizWest’s virtual CEO Roundtable on innovation on Tuesday.
Travel restrictions have created a dilemma for startups and venture capitalists, who can no longer easily meet face to face.
In the Boulder area, about 80% of venture funding comes from out-of-state investors, according to Innosphere CEO Mike Freeman.
“That money is going to retreat,” he said, making the third and fourth quarters of 2020 difficult for local firms looking to raise money.
“Investors are going to focus on their home markets,” he said.
Local groups such as Innosphere are combating the challenge of bringing in out-of-state capital by putting on virtual meet-up events to connect local founders with Colorado investors.
Tetra Insights CEO Michael Bamberger, who just moved to Boulder last year and recently completed a funding, said it can be challenging to secure local financing if a firm is not affiliated with an established entity such as Techstars or Innosphere.
But accelerators and incubators don’t always make sense, particularly for experienced founders. So Bamberger went outside the state for his financing.
Some investors may hesitate to cut a check to a founder they’ve met only over a computer screen.
“Having a conversation over Zoom just isn’t as robust as a face-to-face meeting,” CoLab executive director Dan Powers said. “It’s really hard to replace that.”
Canopy CEO Patrick Rea agreed.
“Zoom is hard for people to get that extra little bit of nuanced connection,” he said.
Some firms, Winter Winds Robotics for example, have opted to forgo capital investment during the pandemic.
Winter Winds founder Valerie Eastman said her firm has focused its energy on building on its core competencies while providing employment opportunities during the ongoing crisis.
But, she said, “I absolutely will consider [outside investment] at a future date if it makes sense.”
Technology such as Zoom, of course, isn’t all bad.
Bringing the entirety of a company’s workflow into a virtual environment has had the positive side effect of sharpening and clarifying its processes, Apoorva founder Nagesh Anupindi said.
“The small business spirit continues to be there,” he said, and since the pandemic began, Apoorva has “completed software for two customers who we’ve never met.”
When transitioning into a new reality where colleagues are spread out, “intentionality is a really big deal,” Globig CEO Anke Corbin said.
As the pandemic settles in, companies have begun to “push the comfort zone a little bit” by adopting in-person practice such as socially distanced walking meetings to “revive the collaborative spirit,” she said.
Fostering that collaborative spirit doesn’t just occur within an individual organization, Innovate Longmont CEO Sergio Angeles said.
During the pandemic he said he’s seen more organizations coming together to form cooperatives and “small businesses and startups collaborating to help one another.”
The new WFH world
Unlike some industries — chiefly retail and hospitality — the innovation sector was well suited for the shift to working from home. Still, the trend is playing a major role in shaping the future of the industry.
“We are already seeing some peril, some opportunity and a lot of uncertainty,” Silicon Flatirons director Brad Bernthal said.
Traditionally, certain factors within Boulder have served as governors on companies’ growth.
“We all recognize there are challenges with housing costs, commuting issues and office space expenses,” Boulder Chamber CEO John Tayer said.
But if people can work from anywhere, it evens the playing field a bit and limits the impact of some of those challenges.
“Boulder, we think of being expensive, but relatively it’s really not,” Tayer said.
A programmer who works for a major technology company in Silicon Valley now working permanently from home may find Boulder a much cheaper, higher lifestyle quality option as compared to California.
BizWest’s CEO Roundtable is sponsored by Berg Hill Greenleaf & Ruscitti LLP, Plante Moran and Bank of Colorado.
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