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The very last Boulder Techstars class graduates as company ends 17-year run in city

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BOULDER — As founders from 12 semi-polished startups took the Boulder Theater stage Thursday night to make two-to-four minute pitches in front of potential investors and the Techstars family, they made history.

They’re not only the 20th cohort to graduate from Boulder Techstars, they’re also the last in the city that hosted the first Techstars Demo Day in 2007. The Boulder-birthed Business accelerator has expanded well beyond city limits and operates three-month and shorter programs globally for founders honing their ideas, building their startups and seeking funding. 

The decision to end the Boulder program and move the headquarters to New York was all business, the company said in February. But rather than mourn the loss, last night’s audience seemed a little sad but filled with hope and gratitude. 

People gather outside a Boulder theater with a sign above that says "June 6 Techstars Boulder 20th Demo Day"
The Techstars Boulder business accelerator program held its last Demo Day on June 6, 2024 at the Boulder Theater. While Techstars continues as a company, it decided to end programs in Boulder, Seattle and Austin for business reasons. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

“Now, this evening is, of course, about celebrating the amazing accomplishments of this fantastic cohort. But it’s also to celebrate this amazing legacy and usher Techstars into the next chapter here in Colorado,” Malte Witt, managing director for Techstars Boulder, said on stage during his opening remarks. “And I want to highlight a thing that some of you might have noticed, which is that David Cohen, our very own Boulder-based founder, has returned as CEO. So my advice to you is to stay tuned.”

More than a decade ago, Techstars joined the momentum that boosted Boulder and later Denver to be among the top tech startup cities in the nation. Founded by Cohen, venture capitalist Brad Feld and entrepreneurs David Brown and Jared Polis, now Colorado’s governor, the accelerator program showed the world that tech startups didn’t have to be based on the coasts. Cohen, who returned as CEO last month when New York CEO Maëlle Gavet stepped down due to health problems, didn’t give a speech, but Polis showed up to give founders and the crowd a pep talk. 

“It’s also a great time to reflect on the contributions of Techstars to the Boulder startup ecosystem. Boulder and Colorado really is the best place for startups in the entire country,” Polis said, drowned out by the cheers and applause from the packed theater. “(We’re) light-years ahead of where we were 17 years ago, or 20 programs ago or any measure of time. There’s so much more support for starting a company and getting the help and support you need here today in Colorado.”

Gov. Jared Polis talks to a crowd while standing on a stage. Behind him is a presentation that says "Techstars Boulder Demo Day."
Gov. Jared Polis, a cofounder of Techstars, gave the crowd a pep talk during the very last Demo Day for Techstars Boulder on June 6, 2024. The Boulder program ended after 17 years and 20 Demo Days since 2007. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Techstars for life

The 20th Boulder cohort had several companies using artificial intelligence. There was AI to help craft grant applications and government contracts (Intellectible). AI to reduce the time employees take to fill out timesheets (TimeSentry). And AI to minimize revenue leakage and compliance risks for medical facilities (IrisMed). 

The 12 companies made it through the evening, though nerves were evident for some. The only mishap were the green and white balloons trapped in a net up on the ceiling that didn’t all unleash during the grand finale.

The event also highlighted past Boulder alumni, including Isaac Saldana, cofounder of transactional email provider SendGrid, one of Techstars’ star graduates.

One of Techstars Boulder’s biggest success stories is SendGrid, which went through the program in 2009. Cofounder Isaac Saldana (first photo) said he doesn’t think it would have made it as far as it did, which included going public in 2017 and getting acquired by Twilio for $3 billion a year later. He returned to Boulder for the very last Demo Day. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)ere.

“The feeling that I just have right now is of gratitude. So, thank you. As some of you may know, I went through Techstars in ’09 here in Boulder. I created a company called SendGrid. SendGrid went public in 2017 and sold in 2018 for $3 billion,” Saldana said. “It’s fair to say that SendGrid wouldn’t have gone as far if it wasn’t for Techstars and the Boulder community.”

Another star alum Liz Giorgi shared the highlights of what’s happened since her company Soona participated in Techstars Boulder in 2019: $53 million in funding raised, 110 employees around the globe and 10,000 providers on the Soona platform. Soona provides professional studio services for ecommerce companies and social media, like product shots and videos.  

“When I think back to the early days of my company, it is all deeply connected with Techstars and the Colorado community that helped support me and my co-founder to get the business off the ground,” Giorgi said in an email. “The first dollar we raised was through the program. The first employee we hired was through a mentor in the program. There are countless companies that were shaped by the legacy of Techstars, just like mine.” 

Gadalia Montoya Weinberg O’Bryan, founder of cybersecurity startup Dapple Security, said she almost passed on the opportunity to join the Boulder cohort last year because she’d been a mentor.

“When the program team approached me in 2023 about joining the winter cohort as a founder, I initially dismissed the idea, arrogantly thinking I was a mentor and wouldn’t get much out of it,” O’Bryan said. “It took me approximately 12 hours to realize I was being a fool and that this was a fantastic opportunity.”

One founder in Boulder’s very last cohort happened to be Lizelle van Vuuren, a veteran of the Denver-area entrepreneurial scene. She started Women Who Startup a dozen years ago. Her new company, Knolly (rhymes with golly) provides an immersive learning experience. Instead of just sitting back and reading, users ask questions, get AI-generated responses and have conversations.

Lizelle van Vuuren poses for a photo as people mingle in a theater.
Lizelle van Vuuren, a veteran of the Denver-area entrepreneurial scene, built her new company Knolly after getting into the last Techstars Boulder. Her new company, Knolly, is an immersive learning tool that uses AI to help people remember what they learn. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

“It’s really funny that here I would be, 20 years deep into my career and I would come up with this idea, get that idea into Techstars, build a complete evolution and revolution of that concept and build a whole new product during this program,” van Vuuren said. “It’s just been nothing short of effing awesome.”

She had no idea that her cohort would be Boulder’s last. While the news was a bit distracting, she said her whole cohort did what entrepreneurs do best: Kept their heads down to build their companies, pivot if needed and glean knowledge from mentors. They’re now setting out to raise funding. Her first pitch came earlier this week during the pre-Demo Day investor dinner.

“We know it’s an end of an accelerator program but it is still a beginning,” van Vuuren said. “Techstars for life is real.” 

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