David Cohen at Startup Empire: Boulder and TechStars


startup_empireAnother afternoon presenter at yesterday’s Startup Empire was David Cohen, founder and Executive Director of TechStars, which provides a unique opportunity for early-stage startups. Here are my notes from his presentation:

Boulder, Colorado

  • Why did I come here today? Because I’m hearing more about Toronto every day
  • I started out in development
    • Did three startups
    • Then went to the dark side: angel investing
    • Started all kinds of companies in all different ways
  • I’m based in Boulder, Colorado
    • Two of my companies are ZOLL Data Systems, Earfeeder
    • One of my startups failed, but there’s no evidence on the net that it ever existed
    • What’s Boulder known for?
      • Mork and Mindy
      • “4:20”
      • Nearby skiing
      • University of Colorado
    • It’s northwest of Denver and has a population of 125,000 – with students! Denver has about 1 million people

VC in Boulder vs. VC in Toronto

  • VC in boulder
    • $311 million in Q1 2008 in Boulder County
    • Taking into account its population of 125,000, that makes for about $2,500 in venture capital for each person in Boulder
  • VC in Toronto
    • $130 million in Q1 2008
    • Taking into account its population of 5.5 million, that makes for about $23 in venture capital for each person in the Toronto area
  • Toronto has a chicken-and-egg problem
  • We learned in Boulder, VC follows innovation
  • A UFO didn’t land in Boulder and drop off VCs
  • There was a strong telecom industry that grew up there (Colorado is the home of telecom and storage)
  • People who got rich off those industries stayed in Boulder and asked "What can I do with this money?"
  • 2nd- and 3rd-time entrepreneurs decided to become angels
  • Most angels are driven by more than just the money
  • Companies in Boulder: Lijit and Newsgator to name a few
  • The VC followed

The TechStars Concept

  • Along with me, other people mentoring at TechStars are:
  • TechStars is a mentorship-driven seed stage investment fund
  • It’s been referred to as "Incubator 2.0, boot camp for entrepreneurs", but to me it’s mentorship-driven
  • The big benefit for companies in the Techstars program is not small amount of money we provide, but the people we surround you with
  • At Techstars, you share ideas early, get the feedback
  • 10 teams of typically young entrepreneurs come to Boulder for the summer
  • If you get in, you get this incredible mentorship experience
  • Mentors spend time with the 10 companies
  • Atmosphere of camaraderie between the companies
  • Companies get integrated into the tech scene
  • Our “New Tech Meetups” are the 2nd largest in US, after NYC
  • We make our companies uncomfortable – we make them pitch often
  • First month: we ask them not to work on their product so much; it’s laregly about learning
  • At the end of program, they get just enough funding to get them to the next point
  • Techstar’s progress so far:
    • 2 summers = 20 companies
    • Only 1 of the 20 companies is now defunct
    • 2 of the 20 companies experienced positive exits (SocialThing, IntenseDebate)
    • 13 of them have acquired angel or VC funding
    • All told, we’ve invested under $600K in 2 years — positive ROI
  • Benefits
    • 40 jobs in Colorado created (probably 40 more elsewhere)
    • AOL set up an office in Boulder after SocialThing acquisition
    • 9 of the 20 companies have stayed in Boulder


  • Try not to focus to much on VC. Focus on product and customers
  • Your community can be more powerful than you imagine if it works together
  • Promote your community when you promote your company
  • Mentorship is the scarce resource that matters

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