Roger Fillion has a very instructive article in this week’s Rocky Mountain News about the closing of the Colorado Institute of Technology. I remember when CIT was launched in 1999 with great fanfare by Colorado Governor Bill Owens with the vision of creating “the next Caltech or MIT.” I remember feeling that while the vision was huge – it was nonsensical and not particularly well informed about what created the underlying and sustainable basis for something like Caltech or MIT.
Roger’s sidebar on “Looking back at CIT” has a very focused set of quotes that puts it all in historical context.
- Lewis O. Wilks, president of Internet and multimedia markets for Qwest Communications, on Sept. 30, 1999, as Gov. Bill Owens launches his new Science and Technology Commission: “There is an absolutely consistent awareness across the world today that Denver is becoming the next Silicon Valley.”
- Gov. Bill Owens, in a telephone interview from Seattle after meeting with Microsoft founder Bill Gates on Dec. 14, 1999. Owens touted his vision for the Colorado Institute of Technology during the meeting: “I walked him through a sales pitch so that when he or his company starts to look for a new campus or research facility, they’ll consider Colorado.”
- John Hansen, then-CIT president, on Aug. 9, 2001, discussing a lack of funding for the institute as the high-tech bubble burst: “If your stock is down 80 percent, you’re not inclined to spend on this right now . . . it’s hard to go in and raise funds from a company that just laid off 500 people.”
- Margaret Cozzens, during her time as CEO at CIT, discussing lack of funding: “Collecting on the pledges (from companies) was nothing short of impossible.”
Now, Colorado has always had a vibrant technology and entrepreneurial community, but the idea that in 1999 that there was “absolutely consistent awareness across the world today that Denver is becoming the next Silicon Valley” made no sense to me at the time, nor does it in hindsight. Having spent a lot of time and been involved in creating a lot of companies in both places, Denver has never been on the path of becoming the next Silicon Valley (in fact, Boulder is probably a more vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem than Denver – so at the minimum it should be Boulder / Denver, although there’s still no real similarity to Silicon Valley.)
Rather than try to be “the next Silicon Valley” or “the next MIT”, it seems a lot more sensible for Colorado to focus on its unique characteristics, embrace its differences, and take advantage of that dynamic. Having been in a few meetings of a group of technology executives and entrepreneurs discussing Colorado and technology for Bill Ritter’s gubernatorial campaign, I’ve seen the same thinking come up – “how can we be more like Silicon Valley.” I’ve been consistent in my strong opinion that that is simply the wrong goal.
Education is at the core of creating a great, long term, entrepreneurial environment. While a few people in Colorado – such as Jared Polis – are doing great things, our state government and business leaders should look at the failure of CIT as a major wake up call that we are simply not doing “enough”, or “the right things”, or “managing them effectively.” I wasn’t involved in CIT – so it’s hard to be specifically critical – as I’ve spent most of my Colorado-based entrepreneurial / education activity working with CU Boulder Deming Center for Entrepreneurship and the CU Denver Bard Center for Entrepreneurship, but I’d hypothesize that if the companies that invested energy and money into CIT had channeled the same energy and money into these two institutions, there would have been a better outcome.
Industry needs to make a fundamental, long term investment in education in Colorado, as does the state and local government, rather than try to create “the next great thing” in times of abundance (such as in 1999.) We need to take a 25 – 50 year view – this is not a short term game. Unfortunately many of the people and companies that were involved in CIT appear to have had a short term time horizon and when things stumbled weren’t able or willing to invest for the long term.