Just a short block from the swarms of shoppers at the Pearl St. Mall in downtown Boulder is the headquarters and co-working space of the Boomtown Accelerator program. Boulder is known for its startup culture, mostly due to its most famous entrepreneur-in-residence Brad Feld and his book series Startup Revolution. In one of the books, Startup Communities, he spells out some of the things that make this small city, with a population just over 100,000, such a hotbed of early stage activity.
One of the tenets of the locals is to have an open door policy. Or as Shaw Lathrop, the Community Director of the program puts it, “We try to always take the meeting.”
I can attest that this is not just lip service. I was recently in Boulder and he graciously showed me, my wife and my 15-month-old son around the headquarters. It had everything that you would expect a cool accelerator program to have: an industrial yet sophisticated look, a good mix of communal space versus private conference rooms and a fridge stocked with organic food from one of their sponsors, Whole Foods. But upon setting foot into the space I noticed something I had never seen at another co-working space or accelerator.
In the middle of the workspace sits a glass-walled area that looks like what your dad’s garage would if he were a meticulously organized computer scientist. Workbenches with soldering irons and micrometers were surrounded by spools of wire, bins filled with chipsets, and 3D printing machines.
Boomtown has a wide variety of companies that go through its program. But one of its main focuses is IoT technology. IoT companies sit between hardware and software, so startups looking sell their IoT products need more than just a deskspace for their MacBooks and bottomless supply of cold-brew coffee. They need to be able to deliver a physical product capable of turning real world inputs into bytes of data and to do that hardware needs to be built.
So, rather than forcing their portfolio companies to fend for themselves when it comes to sourcing tools and components, Boomtown has provided some of the necessary instruments. When I was there a group was working on a product, so I took it upon myself to break their productivity to ask them some questions.
It turned out that the young men using the workspace were still in highschool, part of a program Boomtown runs in association with the local school district. They were developing prosthetic limbs that could be easily manipulated by the person wearing them. “Without this space, we would never be able to do any of this work,” one of the students told me. He pointed to the 3D printer and explained how hard it would be to get that vital piece of equipment on his own.
The supportive nature of the accelerator’s layout probably has a lot to do with its inception. It was started by a group of entrepreneurs like graphic designers, website developers and software engineers who work in a shared space. They realized how much of their work was done in collaboration with each other and wanted to find a way to bring that same synergy to local startups. Since then a long list of startups have come through their cohorts and succeeded under their mentorship.
Boomtown’s hardware workspace might have major implications for the real estate industry. The rise of freelance entrepreneurs and the gig economy has hit industries like software and professional services first. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t creep its way into others as well. If we see the same forces that are affecting software development become the norm in hardware as well — better tools for collaborations, younger generations wanting more freedom, and tax implications of having independent contractors instead of employees — then we might see more spaces similar to Boomtown’s.
Part of what makes hardware so expensive to develop are the resources needed. This is an area where real estate companies might be able to extract more value from this lucrative industry. Rather than just providing an empty building and long term leases, there might be opportunity to rent out a hardware lab as a service, much like WeWork is doing for office space.
Boomtown is one of the more successful accelerators that I have had the pleasure of interacting with. I think some of that success has do to with the foresight of providing a space for young IoT companies to develop their hardware. By eliminating this barrier to entry they can provide support to startups and are rewarded by their percentage of equity. If this same model were applied to a short term leasing strategy, we might see a lot more of these flexible laboratories in trendy neighborhoods.