Denver Startup Week panelists: Energy, food are opportunity landscapes for entrepreneurs

Denver Startup Week

Denver Startup Week, which features a strong CSU presence, has brought more than 20,000 aspiring entrepreneurs, startup owners, and business and civic leaders to Colorado’s capital.

Universities have a reputation for being stuck in an ivory tower, with no crossover between the intellectual echelons of high-quality research, and the less-glamorous doings of upstart entrepreneurs.

If there’s anything Colorado State University’s partnership with Denver Startup Week has showed, it’s that CSU research is far from siloed off in its own world. The state’s land-grant university is a title sponsor this year for the annual Startup Week, hosting 10 sessions at the CSU Denver Center, and leading six expert sessions throughout the week.

More than 20,000 aspiring entrepreneurs, startup owners, and business and civic leaders have descended on Colorado’s capital to attend workshops, network, and be inspired by experts, including several top CSU researchers. These researchers are showcasing the innovation-friendly atmosphere of CSU, and a working mindset of close coordination with industry partners large and small.

Day 1 of Startup Week kicked off with two expert panels moderated by CSU faculty.

How entrepreneurs do energy

Denver Startup Week energy companies panel

Bryan Willson, executive director of the CSU Energy Institute, led a panel discussion with representatives of three CSU-related companies: FACTOR[e] Ventures, Xpower and mAIRsure. 

Bryan Willson, executive director of the CSU Energy Institute and Presidential Chair for Energy Innovation, led a lively discussion with representatives of three successful startup companies, all of which have close ties to CSU. Their product is energy ­– whether creating access to electricity for developing nations or providing low-cost solutions for methane leak detection in natural gas operations.

The panelists included:

Morgan DeFoort, managing principal at FACTOR[e] Ventures, a venture development firm dedicated to increasing access to sustainable energy in developing nations. FACTOR[e], which maintains offices at the Powerhouse Energy Campus at CSU, supports early-stage entrepreneurs by providing risk capital and technical resources.

Richard Mori, CEO of Xpower, a company also located in the Powerhouse Energy Campus that enables distributed utilities in the developing world, with the goal of providing rural communities modern services including electricity and internet. Through their subsidiary, MeshPower Rwanda, Xpower has installed and managed Rwanda’s largest share of electrical minigrids. The company works closely with researchers at the CSU Energy Institute to develop low-cost microgrid technologies suitably scaled for local economies in Rwanda and other parts of the world.

Steve Elms, CEO of mAIRsure, a CSU spinoff company that uses laser-based mobile sensors to detect and monitor methane leaks in oil and natural gas operations. Elms co-founded the company with Azer Yalin, a professor of mechanical engineering at CSU.

Willson asked the panelists about opportunities and challenges ­– for example, navigating the changing regulatory landscape for methane emissions rules in the U.S. A former program director at the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, Willson helped launch MONITOR, a program that funds development of high-risk, high-reward technologies for reducing the costs of methane monitoring. By driving down the cost of measurement, companies can become less entrenched in the cost of regulations compliance, Willson said.

“Building a business on something that is built solely on regulation is a very nervous place to be,” Willson said.

Willson also brought up the topic of networking, and how important it is to the success of startup companies. “Networks are hugely important, to have a sense of what’s going on in the world. There’s no way one human can know all of that,” DeFoort said.

Mori also pointed to the innovation ecosystem of Colorado as an ideal place to do business, since his company can access resources and intellectual capital at CSU and throughout the state.

The business of food

Denver Startup Week ag panel

Agricultural and resource economics assistant professor Becca Jablonski moderated a discussion with Professor Greg Graff, and representatives from Ardent Mills and Jones Farms Organics.

Rounding out the CSU footprint on Day 1 of Denver Startup Week, a panel of experts tackled the topic of a big Colorado business: food.

Becca Jablonski, assistant professor in CSU’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, moderated a panel discussion that included Gregory Graff, a professor in the same department, as well as two industry representatives from very different vantage points. They were Angela Ichwan, senior director and technical lead of The Annex by Ardent Mills; and Sarah Jones, co-owner and director of sales and marketing of Jones Farms Organics, a fourth-generation family farm that grows specialty potatoes.

Jablonski and Graff exemplify how academia and industry intersect and work together for common outcomes. Graff provided an overview of his and Jablonski’s work, along with that of other CSU colleagues, on an exhaustively researched analysis of key assets, emerging issues and shared priorities for future investments in food and agriculture in Colorado, titled the Colorado Blueprint on Food and Agriculture. They also highlighted work on a survey digging into public attitudes around agriculture in Colorado, conducted every year since 1996.

“Why did we do this?” Graff said. “Because it’s hard to grasp the entirety and complexity of the system, even for those who work within it, whether you’re working in wheat or potatoes … you get to know your own niche pretty well, but you may not know how you fit into the overarching structure. Therefore it may be hard to spot those economic opportunities, those opportunities to innovate, those opportunities to be an entrepreneur, those opportunities to create value for others.”

Graff shared that total agricultural product sales in Colorado in 2016 was $33 billion. Food and beverage retail sales were most of it – about $31 billion – while food bought to prepare at home was $13.3 billion, driven by a handful of grocery retailers, chief among them Walmart and Kroger.

No surprise – beer brewing is a $3.5 billion business in Colorado. Also, “mobile food services” ­ –a.k.a. food trucks – is a large growth area, up 168 percent over the last six years, and now a $90 million industry in Colorado.

Jablonski said that Colorado food companies receive consistent support from venture capitalists, and she queried why Colorado food businesses are positioned to attract that funding.

“We are a good high-tech area,” replied Graff. “Agriculture and food is this really interesting blend between the natural and the high tech.” He added that Colorado provides a fertile regional test market. Ichwan agreed, commenting that the Denver metro area is rife with “foodies” and early adopters willing to try new things.

Illustrative of grabbing that early-adoption market is Jones’ specialty potato farm. In telling the story of her business, Jones described a “dream come true” working relationship with the San Luis Valley Research Center’s potato breeding program.

Ichwan also described a strong relationship with CSU wheat growers, in part due to CSU’s well-respected wheat breeding and genetics program. By staying connected with CSU’s network of growers and food entrepreneurs, Ichwan said Ardent Mills has seized many opportunities for “connecting the dots” and building relationships for win-win-partnerships.

Startup Week continues

Denver Startup Week continues through Sept. 28. Find a full schedule of sessions on the Denver Startup Week website.