Home Tech Ecosystem Experts Discuss San Diego’s Startup Ecosystem

Experts Discuss San Diego’s Startup Ecosystem

by Neal Bloom

Each year, San Diego Startup Week provides a hub for entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and creatives to gather and discuss the future of the local startup scene. This year, panelists Andy White, Brant Cooper, Silvia Mah, Briana Weisinger, Autumn Moody, and Neal Bloom came together to discuss the future of the San Diego tech scene during a Town Hall Meeting.

These  panelists – entrepreneurs, investors, professors, and successful business owners – shared their insights with a global audience about what is working and what isn’t in the region, who is being left out, and how we can make sure all our residents have the opportunities and resources to give their startups a fighting chance. Below is a recap of this thought-provoking discussion.

What do you think the future direction is for San Diego entrepreneurs?

Neal Bloom: As more companies grow and mature, our entrepreneurs get wiser and are able to mentor the brand new crop of entrepreneurs, which helps those companies grow faster. Also, as our companies mature, there’s a higher chance of a positive exit, meaning an acquisition or an IPO, which will fuel the local ecosystem through capital, talent, and more experience.

Andy White: It’s never been easier to start a company or harder to prove it will be a success. The future is solving real problems for actual customers. The day of vanity metrics and critical mass are behind us. We have a great legacy of problem-solving companies that we should embrace and grow.

Brant Cooper: There’s a lot of momentum for regional startup hubs around San Diego right now. When you think of ecosystems that are bigger than ours, like Los Angeles or Boston or Silicon Valley, there’s not just one “hub” for innovation. There’s a larger ecosystem where people kind of lump all those things together. A bunch of people spent a lot of years focused on making downtown our “hub.” I think these new little clusters and regional hubs are appearing as less people want to drive downtown. I think you’re going to see more regions flex their muscles a little bit and start ramping up innovation and collaboration. I think this is a good thing because there are still tons of resources in these areas and there are a lot of assets that will benefit the expanding micro-regional growth.

How can we incentivize local talent to stay in San Diego and further bolster the next generation of entrepreneurs?

Neal Bloom: As we see more and more outside tech companies open offices in San Diego, our homegrown talent has more options, which means our companies either need to pay higher wages to meet market prices or recruit more talent from out of the area to move to San Diego, which is an easy sell.

Brant Cooper: I think that obviously salaries go a long way, but mostly we need to be better on shining a light on the innovation that’s happening here. I think one of the biggest frustrations is getting successful local startups to participate more in the ecosystem. There are a lot of wins in San Diego, but when they’re successful, they don’t necessarily think about giving back to the local ecosystem. I see this as a mistake and it’s been a big struggle to try to fix that. One of the great things about Silicon Valley is that wins are obviously really well celebrated, but the people who are involved in the win really give back. It would be great for local founders to be more involved with Startup San Diego and even make their wins more publicly known so it can benefit the ecosystem.

Autumn Moody: We (companies, startups, business owners, stakeholders, decision makers, professional services providers, etc….) can incentivize local talent to stay in San Diego by improving our commitment to company culture and the people that make companies great. Successful companies are founded by creative, innovative and dynamic people. If the leaders of those startups commit themselves equally to the success of their app/widget/technology/service/etc. and also to creating a company that values teamwork, diversity, inclusion, work-life integration, open communication, trust, honesty, integrity, and common courtesy, then startup companies in San Diego will have a better time recruiting and retaining key talent in the region.

Additionally, when companies have a thriving company culture and are able to address internal conflict with open dialogue and interpersonal communication skills training techniques, they minimize their risk for common employment litigation claims such as a hostile work environment, bullying, discrimination, and sexual harassment, because their commitment to create a safe workplace environment for all workers fosters positivity and a collective sense of purpose towards one goal as a united team.

One other major way to recruit and retain talent in our region is to start educating them from a young age on entrepreneurship. Through my involvement as the IDEA Track co-captain for San Diego Startup Week, I recently met the co-founder of a school called SISU Academy, which is a 501(c)(3) tuition free boarding high school with an embedded incubator fueled by entrepreneurs and seed capital creating an immersive learning environment that funds all operational costs. This is just one example of a local entrepreneur helping to bolster the next generation of entrepreneurial leaders in our region through education.  I think what they are doing is unique and should be celebrated.

How do the many universities in San Diego collaborate to further enhance the tech ecosystem?

Briana Weisinger: Universities in the San Diego region are at the earliest stages of the entrepreneurial life cycle. While many of our universities appear disconnected from each other to someone looking from the outside in, there are many collaborative connection points that serve a variety of outcomes.  On a monthly basis, UC San Diego, San Diego State University, University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University entrepreneurship managers, program directors, and advocates come together to ensure open lines of communication between the university entrepreneurial programs as well as to identify opportunities for collaboration. In the last two years, these open lines of communication have led to a successful regional pitch competition where students from each university have taken home prize money to continue to develop their businesses each year. These relationships have also been instrumental in identifying barriers to students engaging with the regional entrepreneurial ecosystems outside the university as well as identifying short- and long-term opportunities for collaboration.

Aside from inter-university collaboration, universities play an important role in developing the tech entrepreneurial ecosystem across the region at the earliest stages. Often times, the entrepreneurial ecosystems of support on campuses are providing the backbone of the support infrastructure to the earliest stage and highest risk ideas that are based on highly specialized research and that are being commercialized from university labs. Without campus-based entrepreneurial ecosystems absorbing a lot of the early stage risk as research moves out of the lab toward the market, companies such as ComHere, TechMeetsTrader, Braykion and many more may never make it to the market.

Brant Cooper: In contrast, I believe the universities have done a really poor job so far in regards to the politics of academics and administration. I feel that they don’t contribute much to the ecosystem because all resources are centralized, specifically on campus making access to those resources nearly impossible. The incubators are on campus, the programs are on campus, but the campus programs don’t even know about each other because there’s so little collaboration. It’s all exclusive to students/staff on campus. It does sound like it’s getting better, but I still wonder if they understand that they should be spinning startups out of the universities. The startup ecosystem should be an extension of the university itself because they’re putting startups out there in the ecosystem and not just putting them on campus. So the fact that UC San Diego Extension has opened a space downtown, I’m super hopeful that’ll be a step in the right direction.”  (Editor’s note: Cooper wrote this response in an email after the panel discussion).

What is our current relationship with Tijuana in regards to tech and collaboration?

Briana Weisinger: Universities across the region have significant and growing relationships with our cross-border colleagues at Tijuana universities, including UC San Diego’s informal collaborations with Universidad de Autónoma de Baja California and CETYS University around an entrepreneurial conference, and the more formalized activities such as the engineering student exchange programs between San Diego State University and Universidad de Autónoma de Baja California. There have also been bi-national collaborations on Startup Weekends, focused on efforts to showcase the Tijuana ecosystem, and increased collaboration through Startup Crawls, as well as a variety of other activities organized by grassroots organizations and more formalized organizations such as Tijuana Innovadora.

Additionally, the border connection between San Diego – the 8th largest city in the U.S. – and Tijuana – the 6th largest city in Mexico – has proved to be a fertile playground.  In fact, the San Ysidro Port of Entry is one of the busiest border crossings in the world and is a fertile testing ground for the development of new technologies to increase efficiency. The Smart Border Coalition includes academic, business and civic organizations and was formed to address these efficiency issues in border crossing and includes identifying and/or developing technical solutions.

The Cali-Baja region – led by San Diego and Tijuana – is an engine of economic development on a global scale. Because we are so closely connected, language and cultural barriers are significantly less than businesses experience in working with colleagues in more far flung international partnerships. In the tech industry in particular, the complementary skill sets in the two cities make the cross-border partnerships beneficial to both sides of the partnership. To this end, there are firms that specialize in creating cross border teams between San Diego and Tijuana to increase the speed of technical development for their client’s projects.

These are just some of the many examples of the extensive network of cross border relationships that exist.

Is the local San Diego government involved with the startup community? How? How can the ecosystem benefit from the local government getting involved?

Andy White: The City of San Diego is a sponsor of San Diego Startup Week. The city also recently approved an RFP for a Business Accelerator Program. The policy they set is critical to the success of early-stage companies. How they handle open data projects, the changes in mobility and adaptations in the workforce will all have an effect on companies ability to grow

The city has been mostly uninvolved with the startup scene thus far, which I’m okay with. As long as they’re not hindering innovation with rules and regulations, they are welcome to stay out of it. Too often, politics get in the way of innovation, which would be really negative for our ecosystem that’s always coming up with new ways to solve problems.

Brant Cooper: I think they have kinda been hot and cold. It’s always a big question of just how much the government should be involved. People don’t understand that fundamentally the government has been involved in every innovation that has ever happened and every industry that has ever happened, so there’s a lot of laissez faire nonsense, when the government, by subsidies or by providing a customer, or by providing resources, has always been involved in this. I don’t think we want them writing checks, but I do think they could provide space and help to shine a light on the ecosystem, and I think you see some of that. I think that they’re focused on bringing super large companies to San Diego, but it would be much better if they made startups a larger part of the economy. I think more collaboration with Tijuana would be great. I think that there’s a lot of good that the government can do, and in this day and age, it all boils down to the need for strong leadership. A walkable city is important, and downtown SD is not very walkable. It needs some serious urban planning in my opinion, which is exactly what strong leadership would do. I think that they’ve tried to be involved, but don’t know exactly what they should be doing, and I also know a lot of people tell them they shouldn’t be involved. It’s a tough thing to figure out, but we should be studying other successful cities and transferring that knowledge to make our city more of a success.

Autumn Moody: The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce is a huge advocate for businesses in the San Diego region. They support businesses of all sizes and in all phases of their life cycle. In particular, there are various programs offered to members of the Chamber that assist with local resources, including financing, marketing, web development, branding, and small groups that serve as advisors to business owners and entrepreneurs who do not yet have a board of directors.

There is always an argument that local government does not do enough for startup businesses, but as a former in-house city staff attorney and outside litigation attorney who represented cities and public agencies all over southern and central California, there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes at our local government offices that many people do not realize. The government officials and employees are pretty helpful and supportive when it comes to new companies starting up their businesses. Each local government is different and has priorities unique to their city.  This is why organizations like the SD Regional Chamber and the EDC are essential to the continued growth and success of the startup ecosystem in San Diego County as a region and not just San Diego as a city.

These organizations focus on policy initiatives out of Sacramento, Washington D.C., and even cross-border relations going as far south as Mexico City, which could impact startup businesses depending on the industry sector. For those startups that really want to get involved in the larger business community and know what is happening on a statewide level that could affect San Diego businesses, the SD Regional Chamber is a great place to get involved.  Additionally, it is a good opportunity for the right business leaders to try and bring more direct involvement from the chamber back to the startup community specifically.

While much still needs to be done to foster a thriving startup ecosystem in San Diego, regional players – entrepreneurs, investors, universities and government officials – have taken steps to support local companies. This will, no doubt, be an ongoing conversation as San Diego’s tech startup community continues to mold its own unique culture and success. Have thoughts about how we can improve our local tech ecosystem? Drop us a note here.

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