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Denver serves as launch pad for global Solutions Summit boot camp

Cross-disciplinary collaboration results in "Flight to Denver"


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The Mile High City positioned itself on the global stage as an actor of responsibility, stewardship and effective business-building March 31 through April 2, showcasing what grit and determination – often met with minimal capital – can achieve to change the world.

Take for instance these goals, part of the UN Sustainability Plan:

NO POVERTY

CLIMATE ACTION

REDUCED INEQUALITIES

... just words, until they're met with action, and just a sampling of the issues tackled by 17 entrepreneurs from 11 countries, representing 15 companies at this weekend's Flight to Denver, a three-day Solutions Summit boot camp hosted by the University of Denver, the United Nations Foundation and Colorado's Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

The founders that descended on Denver from across the globe included Sanjay Banka, bringing her on-site human waste treatment company Banka BioLoo from India, and Sabeen Haque, who started doctHERS in Pakistan, as the world's first exclusive network of home-based female doctors.

In September 2015, the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, 17 measurable targets to ensure global stability and longevity. The day following their adoption, the first annual Solutions Summit was held, thanks to the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service, the United Nations Foundation (UNF) and Megan Smith, chief technology officer of the United States, appointed by the Obama Administration and previous vice president of Google.

"What do we need to do as a world?" Smith recalled asking at the UN goal-setting initiative, calling herself and her colleagues "rabble-rousers and disrupters."

Smith "understood that while the SDGs had tremendous political and Fortune 1,000-class support (and funding), we could only innovate our way toward the best solutions for these issues if we have the entrepreneurial world aligned, focused and delivering toward these goals as well," said JB Holston, dean of the Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science at DU.

Inspired by this action-oriented initiative at last fall's Summit, the boot camp concept and eventual Colorado partnership came to fruition with the help of Holston and Erik Mitisek, executive director of DU's Project X-ITE and the State of Colorado's chief innovation officer. The duo invited Smith and pulled people together from diverse pockets of the state to support the global entrepreneurs. 

"The UN Foundation jumped at the opportunity," explained Nina Sharma, associate director of Project X-ITE. "They put this idea out in the world and they were looking for support. We approached the UN Foundation with the idea – that we could accelerate these entrepreneurs in a more collaborative and personalized way by curating mentoring teams specific to each company – and they loved it."

The three-day Denver program was the first of its kind.

"It's hugely impressive that the UN, the UN Foundation and Megan Smith chose Denver and Colorado as the first launch pad for the Solutions Summit boot camps, connecting the world's leading entrepreneurs tackling global sustainable development goals directly to the Colorado innovation community," Holston said.

Echoing his feedback, Mitisek noted Denver's collaborative spirit as one of its key differentiators.

"We have an ecosystem that is truly supportive and congenial and you can see it in the caliber of people that came out to support Flight to Denver this weekend, Mitisek said, pointing to Anna Ewing, COO of COEDIT, Jacqueline Ros, founder of Revolar, and Nicole Glaros, Techstars partner and chief product officer.

The weekend kicked off with Gov. John Hickenlooper and Smith addressing a crowded downtown coworking space, WeWork Union Station, Friday, March 31.

“With the enthusiasm that Denver’s business, government and academic leaders show for working together in the pursuit of audacious goals, it is no wonder Denver is one of the nation’s fastest growing hubs for innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Jon Slavet, general manager of WeWork – West. “We are proud to be part of this community.”

Smith, who spent less than 24 hours with boots on the ground in Denver, shared that her parents met in the state and that in high school she attended a program at the University of Colorado, Boulder to study solar energy and engineering.

Saturday, roughly 175 people – including the global entrepreneurs and their teams, work shop speakers, members of the DU and business communities – convened at Galvanize to toil away on their business plans, share best practices and present their progress. 

One observer noted that she got more value out of her 36-hour experience in Denver than she did in a month-long paid program at MIT, according to Sharma.

"At the end of the boot camp, we spoke with Susan Alzner from UN-NGLs, who said there is a group in Kenya that wants to replicate what we've done here," Sharma said. "A blueprint for 'Flight to X' is in the works to help other cities and universities support the Sustainable Development Goals and the entrepreneurs working to fulfill them."

Looking ahead, the 17 global entrepreneurs' action plans will be monitored and a final report will be included in the next Solutions Summit at the United Nations headquarters in New York City this September.

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Gigi Sukin

Gigi Sukin is digital editor at ColoradoBiz. She can be reached at gsukin@cobizmag.com.

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