Friday, July 10, 2020

ICELab Accelerator goes national

In its fourth year, Western’s ICELab is expanding its accelerator program nationally and specializing in outdoor recreational industries

By Katherine Nettles

To the unsuspecting eye, the ICELab at Western Colorado University might initially seem like a humble college operation. Perched high on the Escalante Terrace of Western’s hillside campus, the business growth organization is integrated well into the school grounds, but very much its own operation.

Physically, the ICELab boasts a selection of shared workspace, media rooms, a design lab with graphics software, conference rooms, a lounge (and pitching) “cave,” and even a recording studio. Academically, it features numerous teachers, mentors, programs, classes and resources—even a la carte certifications such as an HTML coding class. And yet the end goal is to graduate fully functioning business ideas, and perhaps even channel those ideas toward future students who are looking for internships or entry-level positions among the veteran business students turned business owners.

Students can be found there using the studios, the media labs or sipping coffee and a noodle bowl at the ICELab-owned Overlook Café on the ground floor any day of the week, and students do have free, unfettered access to the facility Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Some use the “Pitch cave” for class presentations, or for screening a movie. Local businesses have memberships to the facility and hold board meetings and business presentations, get their mail, or bustle in and out of the professional office cubicles or studios as well. And increasingly, the ICELab educational curriculum is becoming a national entity.

Accelerating local business ideas

The ICELab opened in 2016 with a co-working space and café, having undergone a remodel that transformed the 1960s-era building, formerly a cafeteria and gymnasium, into a polished, modern space. Clusters of large, high-top tables, lounge chairs, a floor-to-ceiling wall of windows and airy glass art installations echo the innovation of the ICELab in some ways: Start small, and go big.

The Regional Business Accelerator program was quick to follow the initial ICELab opening, with a $650,000 governmental EDA (Economic Development Authority) grant directed at communities impacted by mine closures, such as the Somerset Mine in the North Fork Valley.

The accelerator program pairs five business teams at a time with mentors, and in some cases even investors, since the program culminates in a “Trout Tank” day of pitching to investors from the area and beyond. The ICELab provides marketing and growth curriculum for each cohort of teams at its Gunnison facility three days a week for three months. The accelerator requires that applicants demonstrate a viable business, but does not charge participants for the program or take any equity from a company.

This regional accelerator originally ensured applicants from only Delta and Gunnison counties could compete for an opportunity to participate. As that grant cycle comes to an end, the initial regional accelerator is running its third and final cohort in June and then the regional program will be limited to Gunnison County.

Meanwhile, the ICELab is launching its newest accelerator program, Catapult. This is a national, outdoor industry-specific accelerator that has teamed with Active Interest Media (AIM) of Boulder and the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA). It begins this month, and at the end of January it announced the four startup teams chosen from more than 30 applicants across the country: Gearo, Revel Gear, Hustle Bike, and Geyser Systems. The first program will split time between ICELab facilities and AIM’s office in Boulder.

ICELab program manager Dano Marshall hopes to be able to accommodate more teams as the program grows, which will mean hiring more supporting staff to mentor and teach. Marshall explains that the teams in the program will be pitching their products at Boulder StartUp Week as well. The program’s partners are Moosejaw, an outdoor retail branch of Wal-Mart, and Holland & Hart law firm for intellectual property services. Marshall says they hope to also sign North Face Ventures on as another program sponsor in 2020.

But Catapult is not the only national ICELab program. The six-month business incubator program opened in January 2018 and helps businesses launch, beginning with as little as a “bar napkin” idea in some cases. The incubator has, from its beginning, taken in business ideas from all over the country, and charges modestly ($600 per team) for this curriculum.

Marshall describes how the revolving schedule offers two sessions with identical curricula, running January through June and again July through December, to allow flexibility for start-ups.

“We do that so businesses can jump in and jump out,” he says, as they need. Presentations on branding, marketing and financing are repeated every six months. The last session, which ended in December, had 13 business teams. Mixed in with local businesses were one from Telluride, one from Montrose, and one (virtual team) from Texas.

Building relationships

Aside from the accelerator and incubator programs, some additional business consulting services and classes, the ICELab is generally a buzzing hub of activity and community. The co-working space gives entrepreneurs a place to be social, rather than being holed up in their basement office, for example. The list of local businesses that have come through the programs is long, and many of them stay rooted at the ICELab at least part-time.

Marshall says the relationships forged there tend to stick. “They keep on returning back to us, which is perfect.”

Other businesses based out of the ICELab offices include Off Piste Ski Atlas, Mountain Flyer Magazine, several wedding photographers, GIS (government work), the StoryLab and Alan Wartes Media, and recently, the editorial staff of High Country News.

Wartes runs his media company and other programming from the studio, and is one of several dozen mentors working with the ICELab.

The “pitch cave” still has some funky remnants of its past days as a climbing gym. The sloped walls still have peg holes in which handholds and footholds once sat, and vintage shag carpet lends an element of playfulness. A pull-down screen and ceiling-mounted projector allow for screening movies, presentations, classes or relaxing. Outside of student hours, it is available to those with ICELab memberships.

The ICELab is moving fast, and certainly has a lot going on internally. Its new interim director, Sarita Neyman, took the reins in December as former director Delaney Keating moved on to StartUp Colorado. Marshall came on as the program manager last summer, and in June when the regional accelerator changes, the Tourism and Prosperity Partnership plans to begin taking a major role in the program.

Dano says overall, the growth and changes have “been incredible,” and says “It’s something the area has never had in terms of economic development.”

Each program is continually evolving, says Dano. “We’re always pivoting. Always trying to make it better, and looking for what isn’t working. We have barriers with our geographic location,” which he says is a “zip code problem.” The use of increasingly effective virtual technology, and the draw for some of those coming out to “the middle of the Rockies,” has helped the ICELab minimize those barriers.

“And the amazing thing we offer is that we don’t ask for anything back,” says Marshall. “We just want to see businesses succeed.” He says that has set the ICELab apart from many others, time and again. And perhaps that is how the draw to this organization, intent on “mountain town sustainability and economic diversity in rural Western Colorado” as its mission states, keeps growing, even attracting a business from New York to visit for a 12-week program.

“We’re accelerating our programs as well,” says Marshall. “It’s important to always be exploring new ways of doing things.”

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