Winning team on stage with prize checkStudents showing off their musical technology

At this year’s New Venture Challenge (NVC), a rowdy annual CU Boulder startup competition at the Boulder Theater, well-known entrepreneur and venture capitalist Brad Feld witnessed a transformative moment for the campus.

“The dynamic of trying to get everybody across campus to feel like entrepreneurship is accessible . . . and that there is a way for everyone at the university to engage with it, is super powerful,” said Feld, a speaker at the event. “That’s what I saw today.” 

Dan Caruso, the renowned Boulder serial entrepreneur who shared the stage with Feld that evening, also conveyed his enthusiasm. In addition to showing his support onstage at the NVC, Caruso and his wife, Cindy—both active philanthropists—are donating $2 million to support innovation, entrepreneurship and diversity at CU Boulder. 

Behind this new energy is an array of coordinated campus programs that are either part of or complement the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, given a boost by Terri Fiez, vice chancellor for research and innovation. The initiative is a high-voltage hub for the many classes, academic pathways, clubs, workshops, internships, events and competitions (such as the NVC) that foster an entrepreneurial mindset among students, faculty, staff and community partners. 

Combined with a record number of spinoff companies facilitated by the Technology Transfer Office (TTO), the campus is increasingly “walking the walk” as an innovation engine for the region, the state, the nation and the world. 

Since a reorganization in 2016 to expand its resource offerings and mission, the TTO has boasted the formation of 17 new startups (a 40 percent increase over its five-year historical average), 98 license and option deals, 184 new inventions in fiscal year 2018 (a 70 percent increase over the five-year historical average) and over $300 million raised by CU Boulder startups. 

Catalyze CU, a 10-week summer startup accelerator for CU students, faculty and staff, welcomed its first cohort of companies in summer 2014. Over the past four years, Catalyze CU has developed a track record of launching successful ventures. Selected teams receive world-class mentorship and equity-free grants to support promising ideas and technologies—from funky clothes (Shinesty) to a new environmentally friendly resin (Mallinda). 

Meanwhile, at its 10-year mark, the NVC is fast becoming a “who’s who” of Boulder’s burgeoning startup scene. If you win the NVC, you get a good chunk of change and a higher profile among venture capitalists and other investors. 

Specdrums is a perfect example of how it all comes together. This student-founded company, which creates rings that transform ordinary surfaces into a musical keyboard based on color, participated in Catalyze CU, then went on to win the grand prize in this year’s NVC championship. The company was recently acquired by interactive toy and robot maker Sphero

“The Specdrums team took an ‘all you can eat’ approach to the entrepreneurial offerings on campus by taking advantage of a range of the opportunities and resources we make available. They really embody what is possible for innovators here at CU Boulder,” Fiez said. 

Other notable innovation and entrepreneurship programs include the Global Entrepreneurs in Residence and the Campus Startup Hub at the Village Center, a new physical space for students to meet and tinker with new ideas. 

“Entrepreneurial opportunities are permeating every college and school, from law to business to music to engineering and beyond,” said Sarabeth Berk, director of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative. “We’ve definitely dialed up the reach of our campus startup ecosystem.”