Entrepreneurs are coming out of the woodwork at CU Boulder. It's no accident.
Kimberly Drennan had two goals in late summer 2014, and neither involved starting a business.
The CU instructor, an architect, was honing an idea for an upcoming sophomore design studio and aiming to aid America’s long-suffering honeybees.
Yet three years later she’s CEO of HiveTech Solutions, LLC, a Boulder-based start-up firm developing technology and data services for commercial beekeepers to monitor hive health remotely, enabling timely, efficient interventions.
“All of this was new to me,” Drennan said of start-up life.
At root, HiveTech is the product of an idea, an attitude and an increasingly robust CU Boulder entrepreneurial ecosystem that encourages students, faculty and staff to see themselves as enterprise builders — and helps bring enterprises to life.
CU hasn’t always been an easy place for would-be entrepreneurs. That began to change after local investors and business leaders convened with CU professors and executives in 2007 to tackle two big questions: What is an entrepreneurial university, and how could CU Boulder become one?
Among the first initiatives to emerge from the 35-member group’s discussion was the New Venture Challenge (NVC), a nine-month, incubator-like program culminating in a spring championship with real money at stake.
In 2016 HiveTech won NVC’s grand prize, walking away with nearly $25,000 in all. The most recent top five finishers netted almost $100,000 in prizes and private investment. Greater sums will be on the line in 2017-18, NVC’s 10th anniversary.
Since NVC’s founding, CU Boulder has vastly expanded support for entrepreneurs across campus. There’s broader access to relevant academic courses, new co-working and maker spaces, a selective business accelerator program, intensifying interaction with Boulder’s start-up community — and a growing appreciation that entrepreneurship isn’t just for MBAs and software developers.
“Now it’s really the opposite of 10 years ago,” said the law school’s Brad Bernthal, who oversaw NVC until this year and teaches a popular venture capital course. “It’s a different university.”
NVC now falls under the purview of CU’s Research & Innovation Office, home of a burgeoning cross-campus innovation and entrepreneurship initiative.
Amid all this, in 2014, Kim Drennan was exploring projects for her environmental design students.
Scouting a potential site on CU’s East Campus one summer day, she spied a cluster of beehives along Boulder Creek. Aware of the dramatic decline of the honeybee population in recent decades, she wondered if there might be a way to help them through architectural design. Maybe her class could dream up better hives.
Drennan tracked down the hives’ owner, a doctoral student named Chelsea Cook (PhD’16), who was studying how bees regulate hive temperature. They then met with Drennan’s faculty colleague Justin Bellucci (EnvDes’08; MCivEngr’12), an expert in sensors. “We sat down over martinis and just started talking,” Drennan said.
The idea began to evolve beyond the project her students would ultimately take on. Maybe Drennan, Cook and Bellucci could develop a sensor technology system that would generate data for commercial beekeepers — data about hive temperature and humidity, perhaps, or weight and acoustics. This would add a more scientific dimension to beekeeping, minimize reliance on time-consuming visual inspections and benefit both bees and hive operators’ bottom line.
When Drennan filed an invention disclosure with CU’s tech transfer office, she learned about the NVC and dove in headfirst.
“We wanted to test if our idea could be a business,” she said. “We really didn’t know.”
NVC has deliberately minimal entry requirements. Teams need one person with a valid CU ID — faculty, student or staff — an idea they can articulate and the chutzpah to present it to a live audience in 60 seconds at an annual fall “quick pitch night.” Last year 30 teams showed up, including NVC 9 overall winner Give & Go, which has developed an automated film-editing process for sports teams.
Give & Go ultimately walked away with $64,000 in seed money. Second place finisher ReForm, which is working on self-adjusting prosthetic limb sockets, netted $21,500.
A year earlier, Cook (now a postdoc at Arizona State University) had made HiveTech’s opening pitch, taking home the award for best idea, the first in a series of successes.
“It was a real shot of energy,” Drennan said — and yet not HiveTech’s biggest score that October night.
Sue Heilbronner, CEO of MergeLane, a firm that cultivates and invests in women-led start-ups, was among the judges. Peggy Tautz (MBA’17), then a CU MBA student with an engineering background, was in the audience.
“Sue actually grabbed Peggy’s hand, grabbed me and said ‘Y’all need to talk,’” Drennan said.
Heilbronner went on to mentor HiveTech. Tautz helped the team explain the technical aspects of their evolving project in terms businesspeople could appreciate.
CU Boulder's start-up infrastructure is paying off.
At a later mentor-matching event, the HiveTech founders met other local businesspeople who would help them test their ideas, asking tough questions and unearthing “all the pieces we didn’t have in place,” Drennan said.
“Every time we went to one of those events, some other little golden nugget showed up,” she said.
The HiveTech trio found a name, won midway NVC contests and gradually came to see the firm as both a technology and data services provider. The founders also polished a five-minute pitch for NVC’s championship round.
In the spring, Drennan, Cook and Bellucci delivered it jointly before a standing-room-only campus crowd.
Before the night was out, NVC 8’s four-judge panel declared HiveTech the year’s overall winner.
Fresh off the NVC victory, HiveTech won a spot in another campus program for entrepreneurs, Catalyze CU. Where NVC is a highly-inclusive shaper and filter of ideas, Catalyze CU is a selective business accelerator that hastens the formation of actual companies.
Founded in 2014 by the College of Engineering, Catalyze CU offers entrepreneurs of all backgrounds an intensive eight-week summer boot camp: Weekly lectures on business fundamentals plus opportunities to rub elbows with other start-up teams while refining their ideas with mentors and beginning to build businesses. Each team gets a $4,000 stipend.
Drennan learned about raising capital, business plans, budgeting and types of corporate structures. She and her co-founders labored over their technology, began talking with potential customers and expanded their idea of what the company could be. Was it just a hardware maker, or a data services and analytics firm, too?
By the end, the HiveTech team better understood their aims and potential and were convinced that an architect, a civil engineer and a biologist could also be entrepreneurs.
That’s the mentality CU wants to foster, said Sarabeth Berk, assistant director of the innovation and entrepreneurship initiative — one that “pushes people beyond what they thought was possible for themselves.”
HiveTech is still in its early stages. The firm is perfecting its technology and fine-tuning its focus to address the needs of large-scale growing operations in particular. But there’s momentum. The company has grown to six people with diverse expertise. It’s testing its latest prototype on dozens of hives while courting customers and investors. And it’s winning notice outside Boulder: The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture recently awarded HiveTech $100,000 to forge ahead.
“The training wheels are off,” said Drennan. “We are in full-scale execution mode.”
Without NVC and Catalyze CU, HiveTech might be a good idea, she said — but not a business. “It wouldn’t be anywhere but back in the classroom,” she said.
Photos courtesy HiveTech Solutions; © iStock/Antagain