How to Build a Thriving Startup Ecosystem Anywhere

Around the world, entrepreneurs are dealing with the same problem. In cities like Chicago, Barcelona, Nairobi, Tel Aviv, Mumbai, Singapore and Sydney, they’re trying to harness the power of the innovation economy by building ecosystems of technologists, investors, industry insiders and more. But for many of these entrepreneurs, building an innovation ecosystem is a difficult, lengthy and costly process, because they lack a clear understanding of how such ecosystems work.
As a successful entrepreneur and a long-time member of Denver’s health-tech innovation ecosystem, I’ve spent several years collaborating with clinicians, executives, administrators, patients, academics and policy-makers to reimagine healthcare.
During this time, I’ve identified five steps that entrepreneurs from any industry can take to build a thriving innovation ecosystem within their city.

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1.  Give your problems a voice.
Whether your industry is healthcare, finance or agriculture, it’s got problems. And if they’re big enough, those problems can provide entrepreneurs with an opportunity to use innovation to solve them. But for innovators to recognize such an opportunity, they have to know what problems exist in your industry. You need to give your problems a voice.
In healthcare, there’s no shortage of people who are willing to talk about our industry’s wasteful spending, outdated IT systems and lack of transparency. To inspire the development of solutions to these problems, we regularly invite academics, advocates and policymakers to speak about them at our meetups and conferences.
2.  Keep the stream of innovators flowing.
With burnout and business failure constantly chipping away at your ecosystem, it’s important to maintain a steady influx of new members. One popular way to accomplish this is by holding a hack-a-thon. Doing so will introduce people from a variety of backgrounds to the opportunities for innovation within your industry, and possibly even inspire a few of them to become the newest members of your ecosystem.
In our health-tech innovation ecosystem, the business generator frequently pits serial entrepreneurs against wicked problems like Alzheimer’s in an attempt to inspire the creation of startups dedicated to solving these problems.
3.  Encourage your ecosystem to work together.
Once your city has attained a critical mass of innovators, supporting features of the innovation economy like accelerators and incubators will inevitably appear. But until you can convince the different components of the innovation economy in your city to work together towards a common goal, you won’t have a true innovation ecosystem.
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In Denver, brought together the different members of our health-tech innovation ecosystem by regularly convening them at monthly meetups, quarterly summits, and an annual pitch competition. Doing so enabled our members to get to know one another and to identify opportunities to collaborate.
4. Engage with established organizations.
At this point, your innovation ecosystem should begin to engage with the major organizations in your industry. While innovation ecosystems are great at developing new ideas, processes and technologies, they often lack the supply chains, distribution channels and existing customers that established companies possess.
By inviting Kaiser Permanente, the American Diabetes Association (ADA), and Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) to participate in our health-tech innovation ecosystem, we gave these organizations the chance to learn about cutting edge innovations the moment they were being commercialized, while providing our members with major partnership opportunities.
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5. Reach out to other ecosystems.
After identifying your industry’s problems, ensuring a consistent stream of innovators into your ecosystem, encouraging its different members to work together and engaging with established organizations, you’re ready to start collaborating with other ecosystems. Doing so will expose your members to new ideas, new processes, and new technologies that just might transform how they approach innovation.

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