ICELab grows opportunities for outdoor industry entrepreneurs

New funding summit shows off Crested Butte; Moosejaw Accelerator finalists announced

[  By Kendra Walker  ]

Over the past several years, the Gunnison Valley has become a growing hub for entrepreneurs in the outdoor industry, and leading the charge is the ICELab at Western Colorado University. The business accelerator works with local companies to help them grow their business – from accelerator and incubator programs, assistance from industry experts, collaborations with Western students and courses, to networking events and coworking spaces. The newest addition to ICELab’s programming aims to help companies connect with investors and secure funding, and just last week the 10 finalists for the fourth annual Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator were announced. One of the finalists is a local startup and a public vote running through March 6 will determine the final winners who will participate in the accelerator this spring.  

Outdoor Industry Funding Summit

Last month, the ICELab hosted its first Outdoor Industry Funding Summit in Crested Butte. The invite-only Summit, with the support from local venture capital group Gunnison River Partnership and law firm Holland & Hart, brought together seven investors and seven early-stage company founders. Over the course of three days, participants had the opportunity to pitch their products and services, hear from industry experts on the latest investment and retail trends, connect with investors and enjoy some alpine and Nordic skiing adventures. 

ICELab director David Assad explained that one of the challenges the ICELab and similar accelerator programs across the country experience is getting companies funded. “What I hear time and time again when we go to Outdoor Retailer and visit with other organizations like us is, ‘How do you get your companies funded?’ It’s the thing we struggle with the most,” he said. “We think we have some really promising companies but it’s actually really difficult to raise venture capital when you’re not a tech company.”

So Assad and the ICELab team decided to do something about the problem, and add to the list of resources they provide with a new Outdoor Industry Funding Summit. 

“We started reaching out to investors who have invested in an outdoor company before and are looking to do so again. On the other side, we also wanted to invite startup companies in the outdoor industry that are actively raising money.”

Assad said the goal of the Summit was to give everyone time to get to know each other. “A lot of times when you have these pitch competitions, they’re meeting for 30 minutes or less, then it’s over. When we teach founders about raising money, we talk about how trust is the most important piece. But that’s not built overnight. You have to build trust and understand these people before giving them money as an investor or taking money as a founder. It’s a big decision on both sides.”

The Summit also provided the opportunity to highlight some Crested Butte staples, as participants heard from industry guest speakers at Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum and the Center for the Arts, and then got to ski at Crested Butte Mountain Resort as well as go Nordic skiing.

Local Gunnison County startup companies SheFly Apparel and First Ascent Coffee both attended the Summit. SheFly relocated to the Gunnison Valley in 2021 after participating in the ICELab’s Moosejaw Accelerator Program. 

“There’s not a lot of access to capital living in rural areas. The main value from this weekend was having the opportunity to have access to sophisticated investors who know this industry. That was really helpful,” said SheFly co-founder and CEO Georgia Grace Edwards. “It was really great to combine dual parts inside and outside time with everyone. There were formal presentations in conference rooms, but also more casual, informal opportunities to pitch over beers, mid-cross country ski, and while on chairlifts.”

The other five outdoor industry brands from across the country in attendance included MODL, HEST, Brevay Cyclery, Po Campo and Rerouted. “We want to help companies here, but at the same time include other places for investors,” said Assad. “It’s helpful for our local teams to have a bigger network of both founders and investors.”

Assad noted one of the highlights from the Summit was getting participants out on skate skis. “We had some people who had never considered Nordic skiing, let alone skate skiing. I think everyone surprised themselves and had a really fun time.”

Bill Ronai of the Gunnison River Partnership said the Summit was a great step to building off the work that has already been done for startups in the Gunnison Valley. “One of the objectives why the Gunnison River Partnership sponsored this event is to help broaden the ICELab’s reach with potential investors for companies in the valley who are launching or expanding. For us to be a competitive, attractive resource, there needs to be various programs that give people access to financing. The more sources of potential financing, the better,” he said. “The ICELab is a phenomenal resource for the valley. The vitality of the commitment of young entrepreneurs in the valley and around the country who I see attending the Summit and at the ICELab continues to really encourage me. I hope it will continue.”

Looking back at the weekend of events, Assad felt the Summit was a success and said it is definitely an event he would like to do again in the future. “Everybody said it was a great networking opportunity, and both investors and founders told us they would definitely come back and would recommend it to others. All the companies did a great job pitching and I even heard some investors talking about writing some checks.” 

Ronai echoed Assad’s takeaways. “The feedback has been unanimously supportive. There were multiple opportunities for investors and founders to get to know each other, learn from each other and chat informally over dinner, cocktails or while skiing. All in all, I think it was a great success.”

Assad also felt the Summit opened some new eyes to the potential opportunities the Gunnison Valley has to offer the outdoor industry. “We’re laying the groundwork to show founders across country that we are building something special here. That’s why we have companies like SheFly and Blister that moved here. We would like investors to understand that this is a real place they could look for to find more investees. We’re also trying to show the place off to founders who may be interested in moving their company here.”

Moosejaw Accelerator and ICELab’s expanding 

opportunities

The Summit is just the tip of the iceberg for outdoor-focused entrepreneurs in the Gunnison Valley. The ICELab is gearing up for the Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator, a business-mentoring program that nurtures startups by providing business model coaching, investor connections, marketing support and a large outdoor recreation network. 

Currently, there are 10 finalists representing seven states and one province in Canada vying for the opportunity to participate in the eight-week program this spring. One of the finalists is local Gunnison Valley startup, Aspect Avy, an avalanche prediction and forecasting app for backcountry skiers and snowboarders. Public voting for the final four participants runs through March 6 and winners will be announced March 16. Visit www.moosejaw.com/content/moosejaw-outdoor-accelerator to vote.

Additionally, Western has increased its focus on the outdoor industry and now has an Outdoor Industry MBA program. Blister has partnered with the Rady Engineering School and the University of Colorado for the Blister Labs gear testing program. “Hustle Bike Labs, SheFly and Pact Outdoors are all local companies working with the engineering school right now, getting students involved in the business and engineering aspects of the outdoor industry,” said Assad.

“The ICELab is not a one-hit wonder,” said Edwards. “SheFly first came here for the Moosejaw Mountaineering Outdoor Industry Accelerator, but we stayed for the support, mentorship, and access to resources has not stopped since our arrival. There has been a steady stream of new opportunities. We are testing fabrics with Blister Labs at Western, attending more trade shows made accessible thanks to shared booths and subsidizing, and selling locally in Treads and Threads now. There has been a natural alignment between what we’re doing and networking with other outdoor industry founders and small business owners based here. The ICELab has helped us lay down roots that are as deep as they are broad.”

Check Also

Gunnison Basin ends winter season at about average snowpack 

Almost half the basin is dry or in moderate drought By Katherine Nettles As winter …