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Tom Higley, founder of 10.10.10. Photo courtesy of 10.10.10.

Can 10 Entrepreneurs Solve Urban Water Issues?

10.10.10 has produced inventive solutions in the health care space. Now, the idea generator is taking on water and infrastructure.

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Five years ago, Tom Higley had a radical thought (and that’s saying something for a man who’s founded seven companies): What if serial entrepreneurs are getting help at the wrong time? Accelerators, such as the Boulder-based Techstars, are often instrumental in getting new start-ups off the ground, but those who have been working in tech for a while can typically attract investors on their own. What these perennial creators really need is earlier advice, when they’re fleshing out their ideas and trying to decide whether a project matches their unique skill sets and passions.

Enter 10.10.10, a massive event—held in Denver!—that challenges 10 long-time entrepreneurs to create a solution to a complex problem in 10 days, helped by subject matter experts, lawyers, designers, event coordinators, and other folks invested in the issue. For the past three years, Higley’s brainchild has focused on health-related issues, producing innovative start-ups like Brain Wrinkle Inc., a video game company that helps kids cope with anxiety. But starting tonight at its inaugural 10.10.10 Cities program—which looks to tackle issues that cities nationwide will face over the coming decades—10.10.10 will expand into water and infrastructure for the first time.

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“It’s not just about a problem that will occur in Denver or Dallas or San Diego,” Higley says. “We’re looking at problems that are likely to have a common underpinning across cities and around the world.”

10.10.10 Cities will present five water-related and five infrastructure-specific problems for prospective CEOs to consider. (Each of them chooses just one to address over their 10-day boot camp.) The intimidating list includes such obstacles as water scarcity and contamination (think: the disaster in Flint, Michigan) as well as the dearth of funds to address the country’s aging infrastructure and hurdles in transitioning to smart cities (the concept of using data to make urban areas operate more efficiently).

To be fair, Colorado organizations are already working on solutions to the state’s specific challenges; so far, ideas have ranged from xeriscaping in Lafayette to a water-sharing agreement between a farm in Larimer County and the city of Broomfield.

“Some of Colorado’s growing cities are doing a good job on conservation,” says Jill Ozarski, a program officer for the environment at the Walton Family Foundation, which serves as a funder for 10.10.10 Cities. “But,” she added, “a lot of people who work in this water space have been working in this water space for a long time, and a fresh idea that comes from outside could trigger exciting movement forward.”

The Walton Family Foundation also serves as a subject matter expert, “a validator” in 10.10.10 parlance, alongside major local players like Denver Water and the Environmental Defense Fund as well as Bay Area organizations such as Imagine H2O, an accelerator focused on solutions in the water space.

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While Higley is keeping the identities of the entrepreneurs secret until tonight’s Big Reveal event at the McNichols Civic Center Building ($10), he did say that 40 percent of them are locally based with the rest traveling from other parts of the country and even Toronto—a fact that gives some credence to the Mile High City as a growing tech hub. As Higley says: “Denver is beginning to be a very, very visible magnet for people everywhere as really important in entrepreneurship.”

And those connections to other cities will make it easier to expand outside of Denver, a goal Higley hopes to achieve by next year. Long-term, he plans for 10.10.10 to have a presence in 10 cities by 2022, putting on two programs per urban area each year.

Mary Clare Fischer, Assistant Editor

Mary Clare Fischer co-edits 5280’s Compass, Adventure, and Culture sections; writes for multiple sections of the magazine; and blogs weekly about health and wellness for 5280.com.

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