Boise Poised To Tackle Problems Facing Many Tech Startup Ecosystems

April 6, 2012

12:00 pm

For the second year in a row, Tech Cocktail traveled to Boise, Idaho to participate in develop.idaho, a half-day conference focused on software development hosted by the Idaho Technology Council (ITC). Nestled at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Boise has a lot to offer as a city – it’s the state capital, home of blue turf Boise State Football and it even has its own minor league baseball team, a Class A affiliate to my beloved Chicago Cubs. It’s a beautiful part of the country.

The develop.idaho conference is the biggest software-focused conference in the area, and this year it doubled in size to 400+ registered attendees. The sessions included insightful talks from:

  • Ken Schwaber – Co-developer of the Agile Scrum process, founder of the Agile Alliance and Scrum Alliance, software developer, and author
  • Pete Gombert – CEO, Balihoo
  • Brad Frazer – Partner, Hawley Troxell Ennis & Hawley
  • David Cohen – CEO, MobileDataForce
  • 
James Price – Director of Product Development, Clearwater Analytics
  • 
Frank Gruber – CEO, Tech Cocktail
  • Peter Coffee – VP of Platform Research, Salesforce.com

Rather than offer a play-by-play, let’s look at some of the benefits and challenges that face Boise from the startup/entrepreneurial lens, which was an underlying theme throughout the day.

Lifestyle
The weather in Boise is pretty mild and attracts people interested in an active lifestyle, as you are only a 30 minute drive from the mountains, where you can hike, camp, ski, snowboard, kite surf and hunt. It’s a beautiful place that is easy to live in, and it is close to the West Coast. And local industry extends far beyond agriculture – there are over 100 software companies in the area.

Challenges
It’s no surprise that throughout the day I heard three common challenges mentioned: lack of talent, capital and resources/density, all of which can be obstacles for companies trying to get off the ground in Idaho. It sounded so familiar, as we hear that in many of the cities we travel to around the US. The refreshing thing to note is that during the day, speakers addressed potential solutions to each of these problems.

Talent:  There seems to be a growing emphasis on the Computer Science (CS) department at Boise State. Local leaders recognize that there are not enough CS graduates flowing out of the university to fill the open positions for local software companies and startups. We heard about scholarships and ideas to attract additional professors to build up the department and attract more students. The great news is that local universities were also in attendance and participating in the event – they understand the role they can play.

Capital:  Last year, local venture capitalist Mark Solon from Highway 12 Ventures had a lot to say at develop.idaho to rally community, but the fund hasn’t really been able to serve the area as of late as it announced last July it was winding down. That said, we did hear of some angel groups with open funds ready to step in. One angel group called the Boise Angel Alliance was founded in 2004 and has two affiliated investment funds. Their first fund, the Boise Angel Fund, was formed in 2007 and almost fully invested, and the second, the Treasure Valley Angel Fund, is raising money right now.  The Treasure Valley fund will operate and invest very similarly to the Boise Angel Fund.

The government also approved the Idaho Global Entrepreneurship Mission (IGEM) initiative, which will offer a $5M fund, part of which will be dedicated to “tech transfer” – helping to give entrepreneurial legs to technology projects that might otherwise die at the university level. Obviously, this is not all the funding that every company is going to need, so Boise will still need to stay well connected to the venture capitalists on the coast or in other areas to ensure success.

Resources/Density: Like many areas around the US, Boise is a smaller city with a lighter, distributed population. People often work on their own and feel pride in solving their own problems. But as we know, the best entrepreneurial communities provide lots of opportunities to connect, collaborate, share information and learn from each other. Fortunately, Boise leaders are addressing this in a few ways, creating a richer opportunity for entrepreneurs. For example, the Boise economic development group is launching a central site to consolidate all their development job openings and list other resources and events. Likewise, local organizations are hosting events like develop.idaho, IdaVationStartup Weekend, and of course, working with us to host our Tech Cocktail mixer. Each of these events offer a place for like minded people to connect in real life, talk about their projects and challenges, share solutions, etc.

Boise also offers loads of interesting coffee shops (not one of them is Starbucks,) all with unique atmospheres. Already we’ve spent time at Big City Coffee, Java Coffee & Cafe, Flying M and Dawson’s Downtown, proving there’s no shortage of good places to co-work and meet up. One of the latest developments is a space called “The Kitchen” Venture Lab.  The space is a collaboration between the Office of University and Industry Ventures and the Center for Entrepreneurship at Boise State University.  These spaces are actually an important resource for any community trying to stay connected.

At Tuesday night’s second Tech Cocktail Boise Mixer, we showcased 14 Idaho startups, and the vibe reminded me of some of our early Chicago mixer events. People came out in droves and stayed late to share in the excitement while connecting with all the various startups and founders. There is positive momentum in Boise, lead by a group of individuals who want to make Boise a place for starting up, developing new software solutions and growing successful companies that offer exciting jobs for the community – as well as a beautiful place to live.

The challenges are not small, but they are addressable, and if Boise leadership can stay coordinated, they could make a solid case-study for similar communities.

Editor’s note: Special thank you to Martin Hambalek, Matt Rissell, Carrie Nielsen, Jay Larsen, Mary Givens, Autumn Braase and Jessie Speck for your hospitality while visiting Idaho.

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Frank Gruber is the cofounder, CEO and Executive Editor of Tech.Co (formerly Tech Cocktail). He is the author of the book, Startup Mixology, Tech Cocktail’s Guide to Building, Growing, and Celebrating Startup Success. He is also a startup advisor and investor to startups. Find Frank Gruber online and follow him on Twitter at @FrankGruber.

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