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The Colorado Tech Tour 2016 explores the Western Slope

The group stopped at Leitner-Poma and later ProStar Geocorp


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The Colorado Technology Association’s Tech Tour rolled into Grand Junction, known for the Colorado National Monument and Book Cliffs of the Grand Valley, extreme mountain biking and its legacy in the oil and gas industry.

The first stop took the tour group to Leitner-Poma, one of only two cable transport system manufacturing companies in the world. From their hub in Grand Junction, they manufacture ski lifts and gondolas, employing a shop of structural, mechanical, electrical and civil engineers.

The group later visited ProStar Geocorp, a geospatial intelligence software company serving the energy and utilities markets. There, storytelling sessions co-hosted by LAUNCH WestCO – a nonprofit working to improve and expand the tech-driven business community across the Western Slope – drew the crowd in.

The event included a short film from Go Code Colorado – a statewide app challenge to bring developers and entrepreneurs to build business apps with public data –produced in conjunction with LAUNCH West CO was displayed.

Along the way, ColoradoBiz got some perspective, insights and tech savvy from one of the co-founders of LAUNCH West Co.,and producer of the film above, Brian Watson.

CB: Explain how you launched into the tech community in Grand Junction.

BW: My role is we started LAUNCH West CO. We started out of the Go Code initiative, we volunteered and only had three people sign up, so we had to cancel. This was two years ago. And so my cofounder and I said we’ll take [Go Code Colorado] on and promote it on the Western Slope. We had 25 people that next year. So that was really the catalyst. At the time, Josh [LAUNCH West CO’s cofounder] just moved here from Denver and though he was the only programmer in western Colorado, and it turns out that is not the case. So we decided to keep doing events focused on first taking inventory of who is here and what they’re doing. We’ve gone from zero to over 500 members, in the last year and a half.

What are you working on now?

We’re really working hard to help build a better inventory of people who are interested in tech and not just programming, but designing the entire digital ecosystem. We’re working hard to collaborate with everyone in the region. Since western Colorado has a lot of small cities that are really spread out, we don’t have all the pieces we need to create a vibrant ecosystem of VCs and entrepreneurs and workforce and mentors. We need all those things to help businesses start and grow and thrive here. We’re working to create what we call digital density – start connecting people from all the different rural areas under one digital community umbrella.

There are several challenges. We’re very much an events company. We didn’t know who was here, so we’ve focused on providing events like Beer and Biz or Coffee and Code, groups for western Colorado creative professionals to meet up. So we host about three regional meet-ups a month. We want to do more events not only in Junction, but in Montrose, Delta, Durango, Aspen and Vail.

People aren’t going to traditional business events at their local Chambers anymore. The demographics and preferences have changed, particularly for people who are working from home, doing contract work, starting their own business. So we have to do a lot of grassroots work to figure out who’s there and connect them to resources that will help their companies grow.

Talk about the storytelling session that took place when the CTA Tech Tour came through town Wednesday.

We heard from eight companies and many had the same story. They chose to run their business in western Colorado and love the lifestyle and the outdoor rec that it provides. Many entrepreneurs have families who were either here originally or ended up here because it’s a great place to raise their family and they choose to run their digital businesses here.

Here’s what’s cool – if you paint the picture of Grand Junction and western Colorado, they’re small communities that are heavily reliant on oil and gas or agriculture, legacy industries. One of the things you’re seeing from a community standpoint is there’s been a lot of uncertainty, job layoffs in coal mines, and oil and gas. It’s scary stuff. And yet, many of the cool startups and tech companies that we heard from today are focused on these legacy industries and bringing new solutions that they’ve never seen before.

The venue, where the event was located, was ProStars, which is one of the fastest growing GIS oil and gas companies out there, getting massive contracts and creating digital mapping solutions. Again, what’s really cool about that, as other oil and gas companies are leaving western Colorado, they’re able to work with oil and gas projects and organizations all over the world.

I know they were the first company approved for Rural Jump-Start Colorado. They’re hiring tons of college students from the university here and having conversations about doing some of the work on pipelines all around the world.

We heard form another company, DragonflyAI, and the founder was actually doing surveying in the oil and gas industry and since he started using the specialty drone and creating point mapping. Before he would have had to walk around mountains, and now he flies a drone over the top and uploads millions of data points. They went out and started talking to different oil and gas companies.

What would you say was the outcome or takeaway from this speaker session?

We got to show the audience here’s who we are and here’s what we do. Not only did it bring awareness to the community, we had city councilmembers there, policy makers, who got to see the importance of tech. One of the things we talk about at LAUNCH is that tech is not an industry, but it is a tool that can be applied to all industries. What we’re seeing is all these legacy industries here want to provide a better tech ecosystem with a large work force that starts to integrate skill sets.

The biggest thing, and this was not unique to [Wednesday] whether it’s the CTA or the Secretary of State’s office with Go Code Colorado, but the reaction that goes something like: holy cow, there’s some big stuff going on in western Colorado, and we were unaware of it and it’s very evident that there’s a spark that has begun to ignite. So people ask, what do we need to be doing to continue that growth?

And what is it that you need?

It’s a boots-on-the-ground movement. All of Denver needs to grow together, find synergies and momentum. When CTA asks who should we connect with for this or that, they should have a single point of connection in this part of the sate.

Broadband and connectivity is important too. GJ is working to increase our broadband, but it’s happening slower than we would all like it to. One of the things we’re doing is opening a coworking space – 750 Main St. – with one gigabit internet at affordable prices. We’re hoping to launch it in October. On the Front Range, you guys get coworking, but here it’s a relatively new concept. It’s the physical manifestation of what we’ve been trying to develop with LAUNCH.

What are the benefits, impact or potential associated with having CTA come through on the Tech Tour?

It was important to show and share with them what’s taking place here and the progress we’ve made in the last year. We want to be CTA’s hands and feet in this part of the state and connect them with businesses for events, opportunities and more.

I think one of the things that is going to be important for us looking ahead is sustainable workforce development. We heard from a lot of companies at the speaking program who were talking about losing jobs, and then we talked with companies who said they can’t find anyone. LAUNCH is hoping to tie up those loose ends. Being able to connect with CTA is huge in that effort. We’re looking at hopefully doing a coding school over here, and finding ways to alert people to remote job openings for people on the Western Slope. We want to have a steady base of work so people can live here if they want.

After a quick stop for some Palisade peaches, the team prepared to move on to Fort Collins to pick up the Thursday leg of the tour.

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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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