Sowing economic development seeds in Telluride

The Venture Accelerator Program aims to draw and nurture new businesses somewhat different than existing ones. Photo/Tony Demin.

The Venture Accelerator Program aims to draw and nurture new businesses somewhat different than existing ones. Photo/Tony Demin.

Tapping the entrepreneurial expertise

to diversify mountain town economies

by Allen Best

Like most ski towns, Telluride had long been talking about diversifying its economy. But the Great Recession added a new sense of urgency to the discussion about how to lessen the dependency upon real estate construction and a sometimes fickle tourism trade.

Studying its assets, several community leaders concluded that one of their strengths was the business experience of its residents.

That strategy has now yielded seeds, in the form of four companies chosen by the Telluride Foundation to receive help through its new program, called Telluride Venture Accelerators.

“The goal of (Telluride Venture Accelerators) is to find, start and grow new, high-growth businesses, ideally starting and staying in Telluride,” said Paul Major, president and chief executive of the foundation.

Paul Major, chief executive of the Telluride Foundation

Paul Major, chief executive of the Telluride Foundation

All four of the entrepreneurs involve the outdoors in some way, but range vastly in experience. Hoggle Goggle consists of three mothers from Telluride who have a business plan for manufacturing ski and outdoor accessories. Hyperlite Mountain Gear, based in Maine, has been doubling sales of its ultra-light packs, tents and accessories.

Also winning were High Desert Farms, which wants to expand its organic farming to offer dried fruit snacks from a base at Dolores, located 90 minutes south of Telluride; and, a Denver-based online travel marketplace dedicated to the discovery, review and booking of non-mainstream travel.

These will get $30,000 in direct investment, the chance to relocate to Telluride for six months, including free working space; and $100,000 in free services from companies like Microsoft and Amazon.

But the winning businesses, chosen from 100 applicants representing 10 countries, will also be able to tap the experience of Telluride’s full-time and part-time residents. That expertise is reflected in the review committee that sifted through the applications. Included are board members from Whole Foods and Patagonia, the former chief executive of, and the founder of IZZE Beverages, plus the former heads of marketing for both Burton Snowboards and Black Diamond Equipment.

For the Telluride Foundation, this accelerator program represents a new direction. Founded in 2000, the organization’s mission is to improve the quality of life of people who visit, live and work in Telluride.

Paul Major, the foundation’s executive director, says that Telluride has talked about diversifying its economy for at least 15 years, but the specific trigger for this program was the Great Recession.

AD Urban Land Conservancy RMLUI2013.pdf

“Many resort communities have been having this conversation,” he says. “When you go from the ski area being the primary economic driver to it being an amenity and real-estate starts being the primary, then you start having this conversation.”

Telluride has no assets that would immediately make it viable for diversification in banking or technology, he says. Telluride’s key advantage, he says, is its previously untapped mentors, “a whole bunch of people who have tremendous capability as mentors to start-ups.” And the Telluride Foundation, he added, was willing to be the backbone.

Because of the advent of cloud-computing and technology fueled commerce, examples can be found across the country of thriving rural entrepreneurships. However, Telluride Venture Accelerator is believed to be unique in the United States in its chosen focus on outdoors, lifestyle and recreation; plus natural, organic products, food and beverages; and health and healthy living; and tourism.

In addition, TVA will consider impact investing in energy, water, education and food.

However, TVA will specifically not consider: biotech; manufacturing-based businesses; restaurants; and businesses solely focused on the Telluride market.

Major says that he has had conversations with entrepreneurs working with the Los Alamos National Laboratory to develop commercial applications for the lab’s breakthroughs in the realms of energy, water and education. “They need some help in getting those ideas out the door and into the public domain,” he says.

Paul Major says that the interests of philanthropic donors has changed in Telluride and elsewhere. For a Q&A with Major, see the Jan. 28 issue of MTN: The Newsmagazine. For a complimentary copy, see About: MTN



About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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