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Rural startups fuel the future

Durango native explains the coming boom
Jamie Finney

Walking down Main Street of any small town in the Rocky Mountain West, you’ll find the quaint storefronts, cafés and watering holes you expect. Uber and Lyft are hard to come by. DoorDash is foreign. Nothing “disrupts” small-town life besides a snowstorm.

Our Main Street businesses and their staff members are still the soul of our small towns.

However, a new breed of founders is augmenting the bricks-and-mortar cornerstones of our communities. They’re less flashy than their Silicon Valley counterparts but just ambitious. From their humble downtown headquarters, they serve customers all across the world.

As an investor in rural Colorado startups, I’ve crisscrossed our small towns and met with hundreds of community leaders and founders. Make no mistake: the Rocky Mountain West is at the forefront of the future of Main Street.

The region’s startup momentum predates COVID. RightNow Technologies and Mercury Payment Systems — headquartered in Bozeman, Montana, and Durango, respectively — quietly reached billion-dollar-plus deals to be acquired by other companies. Back in 2011 and 2014.

These massive “exits,” in the parlance of startups, proved that founders can choose their ideal hometown and pursue unlimited ambitions.

They also planted the seeds for their local ecosystems. Just as the family tree of Seattle’s startup ecosystem often traces back to Microsoft, and Silicon Valley to Sun Microsystems, Bozeman and Durango each now have their own growing family trees. By 2017, the reach of Bozeman’s RightNow mafia was well documented. And trust me: Durango is blossoming in a similar fashion.

Where are the companies?

Here are recent Rocky Mountain West startup successes and a taste of the future for the region’s small towns:

•Agile Space (Durango, in a literal moonshot, will be providing thrusters for a proposed lunar landing in 2023.

•Blackmore (Bozeman) was acquired by Aurora to integrate its “Doppler-LIDAR” into its self-driving technology.

•Harvest Hosts (Vail) raised $37M to accelerate growth as road-tripping goes mainstream.

•Helix Busines Solutions (Dillon, Montana), founded by a RightNow alum, recently exited to Speridian.

•Mountain Flow Eco-Wax (Carbondale) landed two investments during the Feb. 5, 2020 episode of “Shark Tank.”

•Vertical Harvest (Jackson, Wyoming) is expanding its vertical farms and affordable housing model to Maine, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

Communities across the West are no stranger to change. Whether it’s long lines at the post office, busier trailheads, or just a hard-to-place, unfamiliar downtown vibe, change is making its presence felt once again.

While this can be uncomfortable, we must remember that change has lived here since the beginning. It is simply time we get reacquainted.

In this next chapter, a “Main Street” customer is as likely to be paying via API from another time zone as walking down the street, paying in dollars and cents. They do not compete with the charm of downtown nor threaten their neighboring businesses. Rather, amid a growing wave of inevitabilities, they offer new means to the same small-town life.

Thanks to the vision of our founders and the foresight of our community leaders, the Rocky Mountain West is years ahead in re-embracing change.

Jamie Finney is from Durango, lives in Telluride, and regularly traverses the state to invest in Colorado companies as a founding partner with the Greater Colorado Venture Fund and Kokopelli Capital. This column comes to The Durango Herald from The Colorado Sun, a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.