Colorado’s Talent Supports Path Toward Innovation Economy

04 Jan, 2013

By Rachel Duran

Based on Colorado’s recruiting and highlights in the 2012 Colorado Innovation Index, a common theme as to one of the state’s greatest strengths in terms of growing the business community is an amazing, talented workforce.

“The index reflects Colorado’s strengths in terms of our competitive positions in four areas,” says Ken Lund, executive director, Colorado Office of Econ Development and International Trade. The four broad categories are: talent, entrepreneurship, capital and ideas. The report was developed through a partnership between the Colorado Innovation Network and Colorado State University to provide a baseline report on innovation in the state and how it measures up to seven states. Four of those states are well known as innovation economy leaders: New York, Massachusetts, California and North Carolina; the other three states are regional competitors: Arizona, Utah and Texas.

Highlights of the report include the fact that Colorado ranks No. 2 behind Massachusetts in regard to the number of people in the state holding advanced degrees, four years or more. Among other facts:

*Colorado exceeds the national average for STEM degree attainment

*Colorado is an attractive place to move for all populations, especially the young and talented

* Nonprofit and university sectors in the state contribute an above-average amount to expenditures in R&D; however, overall R&D intensity lags the nation

*Colorado outperforms many benchmark states in patents, issuing 450 patents per million residents in 2011

* Colorado ranks above the national average in terms of breadth of entrepreneurship among the self-employed and small businesses

In addition to releasing the report on the health of Colorado’s innovation economy, officials launched the Colorado Innovation Network a year ago to support knowledge-based industry sectors and activities. The state also held its first Colorado Innovation Network Summit last August to bring together stakeholders to further promote the state’s assets and resources.

Colorado is also boosting the manufacturing sector of its innovation economy. In September, the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Alliance debuted, an initiative to enhance the state’s global competitiveness. “Advanced manufacturing is uniquely positioned to lead our state’s recovery because it cuts across many of Colorado’s key industries,” noted Gov. John Hickenlooper at the time of the announcement. “The alliance will help address the business needs of Colorado’s manufacturers today and pave the way for the innovators and manufacturers of the future.” Added Lund: “As Colorado continues to deepen its knowledge economy, it is critical that we advance efforts around manufacturing production and increase our capacity to manufacture high quality products.”

On another front, in October, the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. (Metro Denver EDC) released the eighth edition of Toward a More Competitive Colorado report. “Throughout TMCC’s history, innovation has stood out as one of Colorado’s major strengths,” says Patty Silverstein, chief economist, Metro Denver EDC. “Innovation measures point to states that are poised for continued prosperity and growth. Colorado’s competitiveness in this area will be a key driver in attracting capital and the most inventive companies.”

One of the state’s entrepreneurial environments centers on the Fitzsimons Life Science District in Aurora. The 500 plus acre former U.S. Army base is managed by the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority, which has focused on creating a biosciences and health-care related campus, as well as a building a community to support the live and work concept.

Since 1999, the campus has built a workforce of 19,000 people; when the campus was an Army base its workforce was 4,500 people. Thirty-six companies have started at the Fitzsimons development. The University of Colorado has located all of its medical-related programs to the development, including the medical, pharmacy, public health, and dental schools. What’s more, three hospitals are located at the development’s University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus: the University of Colorado Hospital; Children’s Hospital of Colorado, and a Veteran’s Administration hospital, which is building a new facility. A new business accelerator recently opened to support graduating startups located at the campus. Four companies are currently located in the accelerator.

Industries and Innovations

In the upcoming legislative session, economic developers will be discussing with state legislators the possibility of creating “an opportunity to bind together research universities and the private sector,” Lund says. This would include supporting and driving expansion and job growth in the state’s seven areas of focus. The sectors include: aerospace, advanced manufacturing, biosciences, clean energy, electronics, engineering and technology.

“We are seeing a lot of growth in the technology cluster,” Lund points out. He mentions the location of Arrow Electronics, which relocated its headquarters from New York state to the Denver metro a year ago. Hitachi is one of Arrow Electronics’ largest customers, and Arrow Electronics’ CEO, Michael Long, assisted Colorado’s officials in attracting Hitachi Data Systems to Douglas County. The company will site a new technology center to the Meridian Corporate Center.

“We expect Hitachi to start with several hundred employees and perhaps grow beyond that during the course of the next three or four years,” Lund says.

In the biosciences sector, the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority offers entrepreneurs and large life science companies the space to grow. The Fitzsimons Life Science District’s niche is in in biosciences, including diagnostic and drug companies. Health care IT companies are also forming. These businesses find several assets to support their efforts, including access to 25 labs, and proximity to three hospitals. “The ability to quickly develop collaborations is large due to proximity,” says Steve VanNurden, president and CEO, Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority. What’s more, the university attracts $425 million annually in research funding to the campus. There is also a connection to the Colorado Institute for Drug, Device and Diagnostic Development or CID4, which works to establish early-stage companies. The organization, partly funded by the state, provides management expertise and consulting services to startups. “There is also the Innovation Center of the Rockies, which matches up experienced entrepreneurs with technologies,” VanNurden says.

VanNurden adds the amount of real estate at Fitzsimons creates a tremendous opportunity to build a life sciences community due to the location of so many health care players onsite, as well as the capacity to support startup companies.

Moving from Aurora, part of the Denver metro, to the greater metro region, officials have successfully diversified its economy in the last two decades, with industries of focus including: aerospace, biosciences, broadcasting and telecommunications, energy, financial services, health care and wellness, and information technology-software.

The Denver Metro EDC brings together more than 70 cities, counties and economic development agencies in metro Denver and northern Colorado to act as a catalyst for economic prosperity in the Front Range region. The Brookings Institution has named the Front Range among five regions in the country with growing business and social influence. The report described well maintained infrastructure and a growing population as key factors.

Talent and Education

This talent pool is able to take part in Denver’s outdoor and recreational amenities, including access to the Rocky Mountains in their backyard, which creates a balanced and healthy lifestyle, making the region one of the healthiest in the nation. The TMMC found that the state’s healthy workforce, which is also the third-most highly educated in the country, further advances Metro Denver’s brand: “Energetic Bodies. Energetic Minds.”

The talent base in Colorado is interested in being a part of the solution to environmental challenges, undertaking sustainability initiatives such as biking to work or taking mass transit as opposed to driving, particularly in metro Denver. VanNurden says the metro’s light rail system was recently approved to extend to the Fitzsimons district. “You can connect from this campus to downtown Denver, the airport and the southern part of the metro,” VanNurden says. “This initiative will give us the ability to continue our growth plans at this campus. It changes the campus and makes it more of a destination site.”

The extension of the line is a result of the FasTracks initiative, which is a $6.7 billion plan to build out the metro’s mass transit system by 2019. The goal is to add 122 miles of rail line along six new lines in order to better connect an eight-county region with commerce centers.


Lund says one of Colorado’s assets is the willingness of its business leaders to work within their particular sectors to collaborate to achieve further success.

In addition, economic developers have convened executive leadership from nine industry sectors (the number will reach 14 in the next six months) to build their industry sector’s statewide business plan. The result, Lund notes, is that the cooperation between the private sector and the state’s research universities creates a stronger link to available talent and workforce, which creates a competitive advantage for Colorado companies and for companies that locate in the state.

At the Fitzsimons Life Science District, VanNurden is improving the lines of communication with existing companies, and with an eye on attracting more internal Colorado and external investors to the development. “What I would like to see as a goal in the future is to continue to grow companies, as well as attract large life sciences corporations that could locate on campus and not only benefit from our startup companies, but also take advantage of the collaborations, making this a one-stop shop,” VanNurden says.

While Colorado offers a multitude of benefits and advantages to business, its economy isn’t without its challenges, much like states across the country. Economic developers are working to overcome a decrease in funding for higher education in the state, as noted in the TMMC. What’s more, transportation funding represented just 5.4 percent of the state’s budget in 2011, down from 5.8 percent the year before. Additionally, Colorado’s tax structure competitiveness has gravitated away from very favorable to ranking closer to the middle among the 50 states.


According to, Colorado is a national leader in funding the arts, which are greatly supported by the private and non-profit sectors. The Denver Performing Arts Complex is the second-largest arts campus of its kind in the nation. Other notable organizations in the state include the Denver Art Museum; Clyfford Still Museum; Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

For complete details about conducting business in Colorado, visit:

Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade

Colorado Innovation Network

Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority

Down to Business

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2012 ranked Colorado as the second best state in the country for entrepreneurship and innovation. That same year, the Beacon Hill Institute ranked the state as the nation’s third most economically competitive state.  Additionally, Forbes has recognized Colorado as having one of the country’s two best labor pools.

Colorado’s higher education system features more than 470 institutions educating approximately 400,000 students. These include publicly supported, private accredited, area technical, and private occupational institutions. The state also has 24 federally-funded research labs.

The Tax Foundation has ranked Colorado No. 6 based on a business-friendly tax climate. The Simon Fraser Institute says Colorado is No. 3 in labor market freedom, and No. 2 in economic freedom.

Outdoors and Recreation

Colorado is home to 10 national parks and 42 state parks. Colorado is the country’s most popular ski destination, home to 26 world-class ski resorts. There are also more than 35 winter recreation areas in the state where you can go snowshoeing, snowmobiling, take a sleigh ride, ice skate, cross country ski, snowboard and more.

Illustration by kromkrathog at Free Digital

Rachel Duran

Rachel Duran is the editor in chief for Business Xpansion Journal. Contact her at

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