Published: May 18, 2023 By

The University of Colorado is a national leader in startup creation with a growing suite of entrepreneurial resources giving innovative researchers opportunities to spin ideas into businesses.

The University of Colorado has ranked fifth for startup creation, according to the latest report by AUTM*, the leading global organization for recording data on university commercialization**. In fiscal year 2021, CU launched 25 startups, a record high for the four-campus system. With the emergence of new entrepreneurial resources, the annual rate of spinoffs has increased in recent years, nearly doubling from 13 in 2019 to 25 in 2021. Each company was created to commercialize innovation from the university’s research labs, and those businesses represent a broad array of disciplines, from climate tech to biomedicine and quantum sciences.

The AUTM survey shows that CU innovators are in good company alongside those at other institutions. The top-ranking University of California system recorded 80 startups, followed by Columbia and Harvard universities (tied for second place with 27 startups each) and the University of Texas system with 26. Innovation powerhouses the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford trailed CU with 24 and 23 startups, respectively. 

CU is also generating startups at a rate significantly higher than the other two public universities (California and Texas) in the survey’s ‘top five.’ When controlling for research budget size, CU again comes out on top, indicating superior startup creation compared to other institutions in the survey. 

The Path to Commercialization

Venture Partners provides practical guidance throughout the startup process, including:

“When a university startup is created, it is the culmination of years of research and significant work by the founders to build a compelling company vision, strategy and business model,” said Bryn Rees, associate vice chancellor for research and innovation and managing director for Venture Partners at CU Boulder. “The team at Venture Partners is here to help with each step along the way.”

This recent success reflects CU’s strategic imperatives to lead, innovate and impact, according to Massimo Ruzzene, vice chancellor for research and innovation and dean of the institutes. “We contribute to all three imperatives: we lead nationally, meaning that our quality and quantity are at the top of the ranking, and we show others how it can be done. And creating new startups and new intellectual property is part of the innovation process and feeds into the innovation ecosystem that we're part of. And the impacts are on the careers of the people pursuing these ventures and the impacts those technologies might have on society.”

“CU’s leadership position in startup creation reflects the university’s commitment to innovation and to translating our research in a way that transforms lives with new solutions for health, clean energy, sustainability and other important challenges,” said Bryn Rees, associate vice chancellor for research and innovation and managing director for Venture Partners at CU Boulder.

Of the 25 CU startups cited in the AUTM data, 20 worked with Venture Partners at CU Boulder, tapping into multiple programs that help university researchers commercialize their innovations. Those venture numbers have been on the rise; in fiscal year 2019, CU Boulder spun out six companies, and that number doubled in 2020. “The surge in startups is a result of a long-term effort to make CU Boulder a place where innovative researchers are well supported and where partners see value and opportunity. We look forward to growing CU Boulder’s startup portfolio by expanding collaborations with the creative arts and humanities on campus and by partnering with community entrepreneurs to start new ventures through the Embark deep tech startup creator,” said Rees.

A startup built to stop climate change

CU Boulder’s startups launched in 2021 included Prometheus Materials, a company spun out of the labs of Wil Srubar, Mija Hubler and Sherri Cook in Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering at the College of Engineering and Applied Science, and Jeff Cameron in Biochemistry at the College of Arts and Sciences

Prometheus aims to eliminate most if not all carbon emissions associated with traditional concrete-based building materials. Instead, the venture uses micro-algae to help produce zero-carbon “bio-concrete” that can supplant traditional construction materials while matching or even surpassing the strength of conventional concrete. “With this material, we can really make a difference in the world,” said CEO Loren Burnett. The company’s approach circumvents the traditional concrete production process, which pumps roughly 11 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere daily. 

The new material also sequesters carbon, an attribute that attracted the attention of Microsoft, which is looking for carbon-negative solutions in building huge data centers. The company invested in Prometheus’ $8 million Series A funding round which closed in mid-2022. Other notable investors include Sofinnova Partners, a leading European venture capital firm and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, an American architectural, urban planning and engineering firm. In 2023, Prometheus Materials was also featured in Venture Partners’ Destination Startup®, where top research-based ventures in the Intermountain West present their innovations to investors from throughout North America.

CU Boulder and the innovation economy

Burnett joined the company through an introduction by Venture Partners, which he praises for its own innovation and efficiency. “Their tech transfer process is, I think, just spectacular. And very friendly to all parties including the entrepreneurial company, the inventors and CU itself,” he said. The startup statistics from AUTM reflect a healthy, growing ecosystem of innovation spanning CU Boulder from academic programs, entrepreneurship courses, student clubs, events and workshops to accelerators and incubators, competitions, funding and prototyping. 

Placing fifth nationally in startup quantity is a notable achievement, but startup quality is also important, and recent data on that impact are also compelling. Even though they are early-stage companies, the 20 CU Boulder startups in the 2021 cohort have already raised over $67 million–a significant influx of capital spurring new jobs and economic growth in Colorado. A Leeds School of Business analysis found that, between 2018 and 2022, the commercialization of innovations created in research labs across CU Boulder had an economic impact of $5.2 billion in-state and $8 billion nationally. 

Another indication of the quality of innovation emerging from CU came into focus recently when the National Academy of Inventors released its annual list of the top 100 universities in the world granted utility patents by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2022. With 115 patents issued, CU ranks 19th globally. 

Alongside the economic benefits of new CU Boulder ventures are the meaningful impacts they’re having on the world. “At the level of personal impact, we now see innovations developed by CU Boulder startups in our medical clinics, orbiting the earth and in our children’s learning apps. These are powerful ways that the university benefits society,” said Rees.

*Accessing AUTM’s report and its supporting data requires a paid subscription.
**AUTM, or the Association of University Technology Managers, defines a university startup as a new business that is created to commercialize university intellectual property and that has executed a license or option agreement.