IN the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, 40km northwest of Denver, tucked into a picturesque valley where imposing views of the dramatic landscape are plentiful, is the not-so-big US city of Boulder.
Almost 15,000km and a 24 hour journey from Adelaide, you may ask: “Who cares?”
South Australia’s start-up and entrepreneurial communities, for starters, local business leaders, and generally anyone who wants to see the state evolve and prosper.
“Adelaide has already adopted the Boulder thesis and like a flywheel it only needs to be kept going and accelerated by the people who care,” Terry Gold explains.
Mr Gold, a “legend of the Boulder start-up community” according to Techstars co-founder David Cohen, was first lured to Adelaide five years ago by Jana Matthews.
At that point, Dr Matthews, herself a Boulder legend, was heading up the Innovyz accelerator program and looking for people to mentor participating companies.
When she took on the role of director at UniSA’s newly created Centre for Business Growth, Mr Gold was again called upon, this time as an entrepreneur-in-residence.
Then in March this year, Mr Gold made the move to Adelaide full-time after he was announced as managing director of Techstars’ first foray into the Asia Pacific — its 100th program worldwide.
“Jana’s excitement about the opportunities here in Adelaide rubbed off on me and I felt like I was being offered a chance to make a difference,” he said.
“I have to admit that I didn’t know much (about Adelaide before moving here), but felt that I knew enough to be excited about the prospects that Adelaide has to offer to the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“The opportunities in this market are endless and Techstars Adelaide is here to help boost the regional start-up ecosystem with the help and support of our global network.”
The “Boulder thesis” that Mr Gold talks about was formulated by Mr Cohen’s Techstars co-founder, Brad Feld, who visited Adelaide last year as a guest of Dr Matthews.
It is based on the concept that entrepreneurs must lead the start-up community. Support from government, education and service providers is welcome, but the entrepreneurs are the ones who must build and lead the ecosystem.
“The leaders must have a long-term commitment to the start-up community. Brad suggests that we foster a forward-thinking vision and always look out 20 years from today,” Mr Gold said.
“It also asserts that the start-up community must be inclusive of anyone who wants to be a part of it. Anyone.
“And the community must have ongoing activities that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack.”
Boulder’s population is just 100,000 people but there are events for entrepreneurs every day of the week.
Prior to moving to Adelaide in 2012, Dr Matthews lived in Boulder for 22 years. She is one of the world’s most respected voices in business growth, entrepreneurial ecosystems, executive leadership, and remains a mentor to many Boulder businesspeople.
“I can definitely say it (Boulder) is an entrepreneurial powerhouse,” she says, echoing the opinion of many who have labelled it America’s start-up capital.
“Boulder has always had independent thinkers and there have been many great founders throughout its history, but the current wave of tech entrepreneurship can probably be traced back to four IBM employees, who left and formed Storagetek in 1973.
“When IBM moved its 5000 person printer division to Arizona in 1979, the success of Storagetek inspired many of those who wanted to stay in Boulder to start their own tech companies rather than relocate.”
Dr Matthews said most of the companies that join Techstars’ Boulder accelerator program remain there, and many that don’t get selected move to there anyway — just to be in the milieu.
“Boulder doesn’t try and compete with (hi-tech US hub) Silicon Valley. In fact, it has taken steps not to end up like Silicon Valley with gridlocked traffic, air pollution, and its high cost of housing,” she said.
“As a result, Boulder has become a magnet that attracts tech founders and workers who want to live and work in a beautiful environment.
“Adelaide has similar advantages which, if marketed, can make it a magnet for entrepreneurs.”
The key things Adelaide can learn from Boulder, according to Dr Matthews, is patience and collaboration.
“Building an ecosystem like Boulder’s takes time and planning — it doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t have to take 50 years, but it will take longer than five,” she said.
“There are many more players and much more entrepreneurial activity in Adelaide than five years ago … but we are not yet quite at the tipping point where Adelaide would be classified as a leading entrepreneurial city.”
At the recent SouthStart conference in Adelaide, Blue Sky Funds’ head of venture capital, Elaine Stead, said many cities try to replicate the Boulder experience.
“The reality is replication is futile, cities must find their own identity and strength,” she said. “But Boulder shares many parallels with Adelaide — it has a small population, was voted America’s second most liveable city, has a world class academic institution, and a strong industrial background of agriculture and mining, but developed a strength in the defence industry. Sound familiar?
“Boulder is a wonderful example of how a new economy can be created within a couple decades and the job multiplier effect is proof that low-tech jobs are not lost, but there is opportunity to repurpose skills and talent.”
Mr Gold believes that it won’t be long before Adelaide is recognised as one of Australia’s great tech hubs, alongside Sydney and Melbourne.
“The city is attracting many innovative businesses from all over the globe,” he said.
“Adelaide’s credentials are impressive and still growing.
“I fell in love with Adelaide because I could see the true potential of this beautiful city.”
Earlier this year, Dr Matthews became a permanent resident of Australia. She eagerly awaits the opportunity to become a fully-fledged citizen.
“Since I moved to Adelaide in 2012, I have had opportunities to move — both to other Australian cities and abroad — but I have chosen to stay,” she said.
“Adelaide is a city with minimal pollution, considerable art and culture, intelligent and innovative people, great schools, amazing restaurants, world-class wine regions within an hour’s drive from the CBD, easy access to the ocean, and beautiful beaches.
“It is a great city to call home.”
The Advertiser, July 22, 2017