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Groups look to make Colorado Springs a fertile place for tech businesses to grow

July 5, 2016 Updated: July 18, 2016 at 8:15 am
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Bryan Spiess, cofounder of PatronX, works with his colleague at Epicentral Coworking on Thursday, June 30, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

Colorado Springs business leaders are working to woo high-tech startups with new programs after a survey showed entrepreneurs may be souring on a city once known as "Silicon Mountain."

Colorado Springs still has plenty of tech, with a strong aerospace sector and burgeoning cybersecurity companies like Root9B, which was ranked this year as the nation's top company in that field. But a 2015 survey says new companies can struggle in Colorado Springs, something local business leaders are jumping to address. Budding tech companies remain scattered across the area, and many locals want them to succeed. The problem is a lack of resources, according to Chris Franz, president of Peak Startup, an organization dedicated to improving local conditions for those companies.

"Startups are critical for the economic development of our community. They generate innovation, technology and high-paying jobs," said Franz, who has been with the nonprofit for nine years. "They recruit and attract some of the most talented people to the area, so from an economic development standpoint it's one of several core categories that are absolutely critical."

The city struggles to support these budding companies, according to findings in a 2015 startup community survey by Peak Startup. A lack of networks, business benefits and overall dissatisfaction with resources make the city unattractive to them, the survey indicated.

While the tech startup scene is having difficulties now, Franz has confidence in the city's growing pool of support.

"There's a lot of us that have made a long-term commitment to Colorado Springs because this place is fantastic," he said. "It has resources that I don't have living in Silicon Valley, or L.A. or Denver."

One of the city's answers to entrepreneurial concerns came in the form of the Catalyst Campus. The eight-acre facility downtown is dedicated to fostering cybersecurity and space operation startups, but Jeremy Shirley, community manager for the campus, said all technology entrepreneurs are welcome to work there.

"Catalyst Campus is here to support the community in so many different ways," the 24-year-old said. "We want to be a building block and a platform for tech companies and entrepreneurs to reach success."

Other places like Epicentral Coworking at 415 N. Tejon St. were created specifically to provide working space for entrepreneurs. While Epicentral houses dozens of startups weekly, Catalyst Campus has about 10 companies.

The newly opened campus is part of a larger plan to convert Olympic City, USA into a hub for various technology companies, hopefully reeling in more qualified people - exactly what Franz says the city needs.

"When tech startups do leave, it's usually because they can't find enough people to hire," he said.

On a scale of one to 10, entrepreneurs surveyed by Peak Startup pegged the Springs at a 5.5 when it came to availability of talent - falling below Boulder, Denver and Fort Collins. The average score was 6.3.

Shirley said they are not leaving in droves, but startups are not migrating here either.

That will change if another of the city's plans - Launch High School - successfully stokes future entrepreneurs. The charter school, set to open in August, will mentor young entrepreneurs who city leaders hope will stay in Colorado Springs to offer their services in the decades to come. That would solve another issue in the startup community: a lack of mentors.

Quality mentorship was a top priority for respondents of Peak Startup's survey. Seventy-one percent of them said they had a business mentor, again the lowest of the four surveyed cities. The average was 77 percent.

Aikta Marcoulier, director of the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center, said her office is looking to help.

"For us and for a lot of the tech startups that we talk to, they think there's just not a lot of specialists or workforce that are really in support of what they do," she said. "So we are working hard on bringing in specialists to help in that industry."

The team at Catalyst Campus is also listening and their initiatives are completely industry driven, Shirley said.

"We want the community to give us their feedback and say, 'This is what we need,' and we're going to work our hardest to ensure that we're providing what they need," he said.

The survey found that Colorado Springs lagged behind on startup satisfaction measures - with fewer entrepreneurs here telling friends to bring their businesses to the Pikes Peak region. Entrepreneurs also complained about government fees in Colorado Springs and other hassles, the survey showed.

Shirley is optimistic, saying the city is at a tipping point to become a hub for innovators.

"Our community is starting to change its stance on supporting and working with everyone here," he said. "I think now we're getting close to having one voice and initiatives that are all lining up with each other to really support our community. I think that will increase the health of our tech startups."

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