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Hick’s COIN: Cash or bust?

Friend or political foe, it's hard not to be a fan of Gov. John Hickenlooper's economic development agenda as his one-year anniversary approaches. He ran on jobs and the economy, won, and has since walked the talk. He's recruited new business, connected meaningfully with both established and up-and-coming industry segments, and generally delivered on his commitment to pursue the state's business agenda in a non-partisan fashion.

Hickenlooper hopes the recent rollout of his latest idea to spur business, the Colorado Innovation Network, or COIN, will further his agenda and become a watershed moment of his tenure as governor. For me, though, the COIN initiative creates more questions than answers. COIN may be more Waterloo than watershed. Here's why.

COIN follows on the heels of the Colorado Blueprint, the "framework for innovation" developed within the Governor's Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT). It's designed to "align with the Blueprint's core objectives. Its mission "stimulates economic growth, creates jobs, increases tax revenue and attracts new businesses to the state of Colorado by supporting innovative business activities and establishing a reputation for Colorado as the most innovative state in the country." A paid staff will develop initiatives that would among other things, enhance cross-university collaboration, establish an Angel Investor platform, create a business-plan competition, and educate lawmakers. Events and "publications" will also be created.

All good ideas. But if you're familiar at all with Colorado's superb research, technology transfer and commercialization ecosystem - in energy, bioscience, and aerospace, for example - COIN's initiatives seem very late to a game that's well under way. Researchers and entrepreneurs operating here now enjoy the support of a very credible, innovative, professional network of public and private resources. COIN's prescriptions would outwardly duplicate some efforts.

An angel investor tech platform - Angelsoft - already exists to facilitate deal-flow. Business-plan competitions have been a staple for years. The Colorado Research Collaboratory, among others, has drawn the state's research entities together in incredibly productive ways. Lawmakers have never been better informed about the impact of research investment and programs that transfer.

Why then reinvent an ecosystem that's developing nicely on its own? What's fundamentally different?

For one, COIN looks outside of Colorado for inspiration. COIN's new executive director, Kelly Quann, was plucked from the Kellogg Innovation Network at Northwestern University. Guraraj "Desh" Deshpande of MIT fame is mentioned prominently in the COIN overview as inspiration for the new approach. It's clear that OEDIT wants COIN to actively emulate and embrace the methodology of "successful models like the Research Triangle of North Carolina, Silicon Valley and Cambridge/Boston," which "provide valuable lessons for our success."

Okay. But Colorado's own innovation eco-system has developed with these models in mind for years - for at least the eight years I've followed it closely. Moreover, looking elsewhere for inspiration really changes the nature of Hickenlooper's core development message. The governor is a walking billboard for the unique, independent, risk-taking, Colorado-based entrepreneur. How do COIN's admonitions to emulate Boston's tech-corridor align with Hickenlooper's business brand? A brand I've advocated Colorado embrace and develop as it has tourism in the past.

COIN won't be cheap. OEDIT proposes tapping the private sector to fund it, near a million dollars in year one growing to $2 million-plus in year three. Presumably COIN will seek funds from the same, finite pool of resources funding the current network of research, transfer, lobbying, media and support entities. What impact would COIN have on funds deployed now on operations of proven, established entities? Will a dollar to COIN mean less to everyone else? Would this spur, or stifle, innovation?

It's confusing why the Colorado Blueprint's "ground-up" approach didn't inspire the authors of COIN to better acknowledge and build on Colorado's capable and highly developed research, tech-transfer, commercialization and finance infrastructure. A Hickenlooper-esque network would also provide a much clearer path to support and a return on time and money invested in entrepreneurs in home-grown, high-potential industries like snow-sports manufacturing, resort management, food and beverage, media and marketing.

I run a small business - a media business. Like others, I also wonder how COIN will help me. And by some chance Hickenlooper moves on in three short years, or OEDIT leadership changes, what becomes of COIN? Leadership, and their ideas, come and go. Are we left with Advance Colorado?

Hickenlooper has demonstrated an ability to parry challenges to find solutions and compromise - to find "win-wins." Perhaps his answers to these question and others will ensure COIN translates into CASH, and not BUST.

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Bart Taylor

Bart Taylor is the publisher of ColoradoBiz magazine. E-mail him at btaylor@cobizmag.com.

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