Boulderites look the other way when you compare their vibrant startup ecosystem to the likes of Silicon Valley. For locals, it's a matter of differentiation and community pride. Spencer Cambell, in a 2017 article in 5280 Denver’s Mile High Magazine, says it best. He writes, “Silicon Valley-ites take a masochistic pride in near-gladiatorial competition and killer office hours. Front Range techies, meanwhile, value openness and often play hooky on powder days.”
Kiln is new-ish to Boulder, but we’re taking a deep dive into the past. Read on for a brief history of the startup ecosystem and trends toward innovation in Boulder.
A 2013 article by Burt Helm in INC., tracks the origins of the town. He writes, “In 1877, just six years after Boulder officially incorporated, citizens persuaded the state legislature to make it home to Colorado's first public university; 104 families donated land and money to build the campus.” Indeed, early Boulderites focused on preservation, city beautification, and education. In 1899, Congress passed legislation preserving the open space around Boulder, cementing locals’ interest in balancing the city’s development with ongoing conservation efforts. Put simply, Boulder has held fast to a policy of controlled urban expansion ever since.
Most notably, Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. (son of NYC’s Central Park creator) was commissioned in 1908 by the city during the boom of the nationwide urban planning “City Beautiful” trend. He identified recommendations for the city -- covering everything from sewage systems to the best types of trees to plan. Throughout the next century, city voters developed sales taxes on open space acquisition in attempts to contain urban sprawl, dictated zoning and transportation decisions, restricted city water service to lower altitude areas to protect the mountains from development, and limited the height of new buildings.
By the 1950's, Boulder was a far cry from the mining supply town it had once been. You could think of it more like an educated college town. And the federal government noticed. Helm writes, “In 1952, the federal government made greater Boulder the site of Rocky Flats, a 27-building nuclear weapons manufacturing facility. After the Department of Defense ordered sophisticated rocket pointing controls from CU's labs, researchers, including Mercure, left to form Ball Aerospace, which filled those contracts and others. Eventually, the government made Boulder the site of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and IBM moved its tape drive manufacturing division out there, which later led to the founding of storage start-ups StorageTek, Exabyte, and McData. On the backs of these technology jobs, Boulder's population doubled from 1950 to 1960 and then jumped to 67,000 10 years later.”
Picture this: late 1960’s, scientists are here, and Boulder is bustling. In come the country’s young folks, the hippies, and the suburban teens. This influx sparked the movement we’ve come to recognize as akin to Boulder itself; the organic food and products market. Celestial Seasonings is now a household name.
When you take a closer look at the growth that Boulder has experienced in the last few decades, a pastiche and simultaneous mishmash of backgrounds, stories, and kinds of innovation reveal themselves. Helm concludes, “I wish I could point to some municipal entrepreneurship program or other business initiatives that enticed these people to start companies in Boulder. [...] Without the help of oil, natural gas, or any monolithic industry, Boulder County (population 300,000) ranks among the top 20 most productive metro areas in terms of GDP.” Others, like Brad Feld (co-founder of the global accelerator, Techstars) have taken a more in-depth look at what he has coined as the “Boulder Hypothesis.” His 2012 book, Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City” is a must-read.
Finally, Boulder has a booming venture capital scene to track its success in tech innovation. Paul Hagey, in a 2020 BLDRfly article writes, “Among the 18 startup cities analyzed by the Boulder Chamber in its 2020-updated Boulder Innovation report, Boulder ranked fourth with $3,813 in per-capita venture capital investment behind only San Francisco, Palo Alto (in the heart of Silicon Valley) and Boston.”
Cheers to Boulder and continued success!