Thousands of venture accelerator programs give young businesses a boost in their earliest days, but precious few focus on the outdoor space.
The Telluride Venture Accelerator program that launched last year is a notable exception.
Its founder and director, Jesse Johnson, said the nonprofit aims to develop new businesses that focus on outdoor recreation, tourism, natural products, health, energy, water and education. As a bonus, he hopes these businesses will consider relocating to Telluride, Colo. to diversify the ski town’s economy.
Telluride has “become so overly dependent upon tourism,” Johnson said. He noted that towns whose economies rely on tourism and housing fared especially poorly in the economic downturn of 2008 to 2009.
The program was announced in fall 2012 and attracted hundreds of applications from start-ups in nine countries. Ultimately only four could be awarded the $30,000 in seed money and $8,000 travel stipend the program offers. The fortunate ones – Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Hoggle Goggle, Globa.li and High Desert Farms – receive a six-month stay in Telluride to connect more easily with mentors who have been successful in their respective fields.
“The idea was to focus on companies and areas that we feel are fairly synonymous with ethos of Telluride,” Johnson said. The program launched a national competition (though it received several applications from abroad) calling for start-up or young companies
Mentors in the Telluride Venture Accelerator program include Dennis “DJ” Jensen, previously with Burton, Timberland and Black Diamon,; and Malie Burker, who has worked in marketing at companies like Nike, Timberland and Izze Sparkling Juice.
“We just have a tremendous group of very successful, skilled entrepreneurs who are here full-time running their businesses remotely – or who are here as second-home owners,” Johnson said. Those people, he added, were more than willing to become mentors to the fresh-faced entrepreneurs.
The experience has proved invaluable for Maine-based Hyperlite Mountain Gear’s President and CEO, Mike St. Pierre. He said his company, which specializes in ultralight outdoor gear made from the highest quality fabrics and materials, has had experience with other venture accelerator programs, but he felt the Telluride program offered the best mentor connections.
“It would have taken me a lot of time to develop the contacts with the people we’re meeting and working with right now,” St. Pierre said. “Just meeting the contacts is huge, that resource. It's absolutely huge to find dedicated people in the industry, and be able to work with them and pick their brains."
The program, currently sponsored by several private individuals, the Telluride Foundation, local Telluride Business, Great Lakes Airlines, the State of Colorado, the Kauffman Foundation, the Peaks Hotel plus a few outdoor companies, is always seeking additional corporate sponsorship, Johnson said.
Plus, he added, applications will be open in September 2013 for small businesses in the outdoor space.
“For an outdoor gear company it’s a great opportunity to be working with some of the best in the industry,” St. Pierre said.