I received a Silicon Flatirons email from Phil Weiser this morning in his role as Silicon Flatirons Founder and Executive Director. My partners and I, especially Jason Mendelson, have been very involved with Silicon Flatirons over the past decade. I have a chapter in Startup Communities that uses CU Boulder – and specifically Silicon Flatirons – as an example of a much better way than the traditional approach (circa 2012) for a university to engage with the startup community.
One of the key leaders in this activity is Brad Bernthal. While BradB has become a close friend over the years, I think that he doesn’t get anywhere near the recognition he deserves for his endless and tireless engagement in and across the activities of CU Boulder + the Boulder startup community. It made me extremely happy to see Phil’s email and I decided to reblog it because I think it does a great job of highlighting some of the specific things that a professor like BradB can do to impact the startup community from a role in a university.
BradB – thank you for everything you do. You are awesome. Phil’s note to the Silicon Flatirons community follows.
Silicon Flatirons continues to support a range of entrepreneurship activity. Just consider what we have done over the past month or so: Crash Courses on GDPR compliance and how startups can sell products to large enterprises; student attorneys helping area startups through the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic; a candid interview by Krista Marks with David Brown and David Cohen of Techstars (recording here); an intellectual feast in the entrepreneurship conference and academic workshop examining the concept of “#GiveFirst” (recording here); and tonight‘s kickoff for our New Venture Challenge Information Technology (IT) track.
Supporting entrepreneurs in our community is a central part of our mission. The person who leads this initiative is Brad Bernthal, our Entrepreneurship Initiative Director. After building up our leadership in this area, we formally established this initiative with Brad at the helm in 2008. It is hard to overstate Brad’s impact on campus and in the community over the last decade. In addition to events that convene entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, students, and academics to learn from one another, as well as Brad’s extraordinary commitment to mentoring, his scholarship merits notice and praise.
After seeing it firsthand, Brad was intrigued by the well-regarded entrepreneurial ecosystem in Boulder. How does it work? Why do people get involved? Why do people contribute without knowing what they might get in return? Brad’s scholarship has focused on this important aspect of our economy. Brad is currently studying finance instruments used in startup investment and has two forthcoming articles on this topic. Just prior to this, his published research focused on generalized exchange within investment accelerators, the first legal scholarship about how accelerators work.
In addition to leading the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic that aids the startup community, Brad co-teaches a venture capital course at Colorado Law, along with Jason Mendelson of Foundry Group. Brad and Jason are now in their tenth year of teaching the VC course, which attracts a cross-campus mix of JD, MBA, and engineering graduate students. The course is so valued that students established an endowed scholarship fund in Brad’s name and created a separate campus entrepreneurship gift in Jason’s honor.
Brad is one of the leaders of the CU Boulder campus-wide entrepreneurship and innovation effort. He continually strives to connect the university and surrounding startup community. He collaborated with others on campus to launch and drive the New Venture Challenge for nine years. They successfully handed over the reins to campus leadership last year, and Brad continues to support the effort through the IT track, which Silicon Flatirons hosts.
And when he’s not doing all of the above, he is, well, giving first. He averages close to 400 1-on-1 coffee meetings each year with those in their entrepreneurial journeys. He also serves as a Techstars mentor and is on the Colorado Venture Capital Authority Board, which oversees the State of Colorado’s venture capital fund.
Brad embodies the spirit of collaboration: giving to and supporting others. It’s a privilege to have him as a core member of the Silicon Flatirons team.
I heard the word “connector” several times yesterday at the Colorado Innovation Network summit. I gave the final speech of the day after being in Chicago in the morning to give the keynote speech at the Excelerate Labs Demo Day which was an awesome group where I discovered one company I’m very interested in potentially investing in.
In both cities (Chicago and Denver) I gave a talk about Startup Communities using the Boulder Thesis as a framework. The Chicago talk was short and tight (about 15 minutes) to warm up the event. The Denver talk ended up going almost an hour and having a lot of Q&A. Both were simulating (at least to me – hopefully to the crowd) and the entrepreneurial energy in both rooms was significant.
While I missed most of the COIN summit because I was traveling back from Chicago, I caught a few of the last talks before mine. I also talked to a bunch of people and kept hearing the word “connector” come up – it must have been one of the words of the day. This was used to define a role for many of the constituents in the COIN summit which included entrepreneurs, government, university, and big company folks.
My good friend Phil Weiser, Dean of the CU Law School, introduced me to the word “convener” several years ago. CU Law, and specifically the Silicon Flatirons program that Phil created a decade ago, plays a huge convening role for the Boulder startup community. As a result, it sits in the center of a lot of activity. It’s not a connector – it’s a convener.
Government and universities, in my view around startup communities, are feeders, not leaders. Feeders are important, but they are different – and play a different role than leaders. For a startup community to be vibrant and sustainable the leaders have to be entrepreneurs. This is the first tenet of the Boulder Thesis.
A convener has much more leverage than a connector. A connector implies a lot of work and a lot of control. There’s also a hierarchical dynamic – connectors are choosing who to connect; as a result they become gatekeepers which is not the right role for a feeder. I believe most gatekeepers inhibit the growth and development of a startup community so any role that looks gatekeeper-ish is often an inhibitor to progress.
Conveners quickly develop a reputation for being inclusive and accessible. This is another tenet of the Boulder Thesis – everyone in the startup community must be inclusive to anyone who wants to engage.
I was going back and forth with a founder of a startup in Chicago this morning by email who is now eight years old (not really a startup anymore) and just rented a 60,000 foot office and is looking to help the startup community more now that it’s gotten to a meaningful size. I suggested that, among other things, they play a convener role.
Basically, all feeders to a startup community can play a convener role. It’s more powerful than simply being a connector.