Published: Nov. 4, 2015

Business accelerators -- entities that give money, guidance and space for a set amount of time to startups -- heavily rely on volunteer mentors to promote innovation, according to a new University of Colorado Boulder study.

Understanding The Informal Organization of Innovation

Friday, Nov. 6, 1-6:30 p.m.

Wittemyer Courtroom, Wolf Law Building

Free for CU-Boulder students, faculty, staff; $15-$20 for members of the public

Details and Registration:

Volunteers including industry veterans, serial entrepreneurs, or those with auxiliary skills needed by fledgling companies meet with participating startups and provide the expertise that makes the accelerator experience valuable, said study author Brad Bernthal, associate professor of law and director of CU-Boulder’s Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship.

For the study, Bernthal didn’t have to go far to examine accelerator programs, which began to exist in 2005 and have a strong Boulder presence.

“Boulder has played an outsized role in launching an industry that is now a global phenomenon,” he said.

Among the 5,000-plus organizations worldwide that self-identify as accelerators, Boulder’s Techstars, founded in 2007, is a pioneer in the industry, said Bernthal. Today, a total of eight accelerators have Boulder ties and the leading industry organization, The Global Accelerator Network, operates out of Boulder.

Accelerators’ use of volunteers in crucial roles represents a surprisingly informal but effective arrangement in the business world -- one that lacks contracts and legal safeguards and depends on cooperative rather than opportunistic behaviors.

“Most people think that formal companies and legal contracts are required to produce meaningful new products and services,” said Bernthal, who also is the director of CU-Boulder’s Entrepreneurship Initiative. “Increasingly, that appears to be only part of the story. Volunteer networks and informal organizational structure play key roles in the creation of new things, too, even where the beneficiary is a for-profit company.

“These volunteers participate outside of formal relationships. They work closely with startups and are a ‘secret sauce’ that makes accelerators work,” said Bernthal.

For the paper, which is the first of its kind in legal literature and is accepted for publication in 2016 in the Stanford Journal of Law, Business & Finance, Bernthal looked at investment accelerators. Investment accelerators are distinct from other accelerator types in that they take partial ownership in startups.

He conducted 48 interviews involving entrepreneurs who founded startup companies, principals of accelerator entities and mentors who advise startups, spanning 17 mentor-driven accelerators.

A CU-Boulder conference Friday, Nov. 6, will examine ways in which the organization of innovation challenges the status quo. The “Entrepreneurship Initiative Conference: Understanding the Informal Organization of Innovation,” led by Bernthal, will be held from 1 to 6:30 p.m. in the Wittemyer Courtroom at the Wolf Law Building.

It is free for CU-Boulder students, faculty and staff. It is also open to the public for whom registration is $15 ahead of time or $20 at the door. Registration, which is required for all attendees, is available at

Keynote speaker Lisa Bernstein, Wilson-Dickinson professor of law at the University of Chicago, will discuss innovation and the theory of the firm from 1:15 to 1:40 p.m.

Following will be a panel on “For-Profit Volunteerism and Innovation” from 1:45 to 2:45 p.m. including Bernstein, Sue Heilbronner of MergeLane, Phil McKinney of CableLabs and Nathan Seidle of SparkFun Electronics, moderated by Bernthal.

Panels later in the day will include “The Organizational Structure of Accelerators” and “Intellectual Property Challenges and Strategies Amid Informal Organization,” featuring leaders from the Unreasonable Institute, Techstars, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (Rocky Mountain Region) and CU-Boulder.

To view the investment accelerators paper visit or contact Elizabeth Lock at or 303-492-3117. For more information about the Nov. 6 conference and to register visit

Brad Bernthal, 303-492-0610
Elizabeth Lock, CU-Boulder media relations, 303-492-3117