AOL's founder stops in Denver to spotlight the American dream

Steve Case will be in the Mile High City on Oct. 4

How does the former CEO and co-founder of America Online top a venture that, to many, was the initial driver of the internet era?

In this case, he rides into the sunset on a bus.

Destination: Middle America.

Purpose: With nearly 75 percent of all venture capital ending up in just three hubs – New York, California and Massachusetts – Steve Case has taken to the streets on a cross-country Rise of the Rest tour to shine a spotlight on entrepreneurial ecosystems between the coasts. And this year’s five-day, five-city excursion- Oct. 3-7- makes its way to the Mile High City on Oct. 4. The other cities on the tour include Omaha/Lincoln, Neb., Salt Lake City/Provo, Utah, Albuquerque, N.M., and Phoenix.

Noting low unemployment and the number of cranes freckling Denver’s skyline, Case and company tabbed Denver – from more than 80 nationwide nominations and hundreds of applications – in the hopes of buttressing the momentum.

“Denver is a later-stage startup community than, let’s say, Lincoln, Nebraska, or Albuquerque, New Mexico,” says Case, a serial entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist. We do recognize that Denver is already rising and so we’re here to showcase and celebrate that, because people around the country don’t necessarily know.”

Presented by Case’s Washington, D.C.-based venture capital firm Revolution, Google for Entrepreneurs, Salesforce for Startups, Village Capital and Economic Innovation Group, Case will arrive in town via bus to meet with local businesses, civic leaders and experience on-site tours of various Colorado companies. The day will culminate with a pitch competition, where Case will select a startup to receive a $100,000 investment. As of mid-August, the tour was still being finalized; however Denver companies expected to be included: Ibotta, Havenly, Craftsy, Revolar, HyprLoco, Love Grown Foods and more.

Case says he’s on the lookout for strategic puzzle pieces – including community leadership, entrepreneurial government – pointing specifically to Mayor Michael Hancock and Gov. John Hickenlooper – investors, talent and a collaborative mindset – in order to build a successful small business hub.

“In general, these are all accelerants,” Case says. “Network density is critical.” To that end, he says that while Denver attracts more visibility than other Colorado cities,”real magic” may stem from a more regional perspective – “one unified network” – of the cities that make up the Front Range.

“Over the course of the last five years, the last big tech cycle, what you see is the hard lines and borders between our cities – Boulder, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins and Denver – start to soften and flex; they’re becoming more inclusive,” says Erik Mitisek, chief innovation officer for the state of Colorado and executive director of Project X-ITE, a cross-discipline initiative targeting innovation, entrepreneurship and technology at the University of Denver.

“What used to be four separate cities, in the not-so-distant future, I see all of that being Denver in the same capacity as the reference to San Francisco. No one says, ‘I’m going to Redwood City,’ or ‘I’m going to Palo Alto.’ They say ‘I’m going to San Francisco.’”

For Case, Rise of the Rest, which started some five years ago, has evolved from a passion project to a more complete initiative and investment opportunity. Encouraging the American dream, regardless of geography, “We want everybody, everywhere to be thinking about ways to create products, services, drive growth and create jobs,” Case says.

In June, Revolution Growth, the later-stage fund, raised $525 million – aimed at investing growth capital for companies and entrepreneurs who can change the world. Amid major investments in companies including OrderUp, Shinola and Zipcar, Case and his team have already invested in local businesses, including Inspirato by American Express and Exclusive Resorts. The $100,000 investments that occur along the Rise of the Rest tour come from Case personally, rather than one of the two funds.

“Most importantly, [the Rise of the Rest tour is] going to feel, more than see, the way we work together as a community – it really is unmatched,” Mitisek says. “The public partners, private industry, nonprofits – they all support high growth. They’re not separate islands in the sea, but a tightly knit, thriving community. All of us get along as we work to push each other. I hope they feel that level of entrepreneurial support here that’s not evident in all communities.”

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