Signs of Resurgence in SD as EvoNexus Opens Downtown Tech Incubator---And We Map 99 Startups

2/17/12Follow @bvbigelow

It could have been just another lame ribbon-cutting ceremony. There was a proclamation signed by the Mayor and the San Diego City Council that declared Feb. 16th as “EvoNexus Downtown Day.” There were speeches, and Mayor Jerry Sanders and the VIPs crowded together with a pair of oversized scissors to snip a ribbon. But something else was present as well.

Last night’s official opening of the downtown EvoNexus, an incubator for Internet software and mobile app startups, drew more than 200 people, and many seemed to be infused with a fresh sense of optimism that maybe, just maybe, a resurgence of local tech startups is underway here. A dozen “foundry” startups and one later-stage “forge” startup already have moved into the 15,000-square foot incubator—and there is room for six or seven more.

“The vision is to create something close to San Francisco’s ‘South of Market’ area,” says Kevin Hell, the former DivX CEO who has been overseeing EvoNexus as the incubator’s volunteer chairman. That’s a bit of a stretch. San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood is a hotbed for high tech startups, as well as the corporate home for such companies as Twitter, Dropbox, Yelp, CNET Networks, and Wired.

EvoNexus Opening Crowd

CommNexus, the non-profit industry group once known as the San Diego Telecom Council, established EvoNexus in the University City area in 2009 as a free startup incubator. The Irvine Co. has been providing the commercial office space at no cost (for both the downtown EvoNexus and in University City), and CommNexus is covering the utilities and other operating costs.

Of 14 startups that moved into the first EvoNexus incubator in University City, six have moved out. The six graduates have collectively raised a total of $55 million from venture capital firms, corporate venture funds, and individual investors. “I’m proud to say EvoNexus has exceeded our expectations, but we’re not done yet,” says CommNexus CEO Rory Moore. It’s been successful enough, though, to spur a groundswell of local industry support. John Major, the CommNexus board chairman (and chairman of Irvine, CA-based Broadcom) tells me more companies and donors have been lining up to support the EvoNexus program, and there are more contributions to be announced.

“I’m a third-generation San Diegan, and I remember what downtown San Diego used to look like,” says City Councilman Todd Gloria. In touring the downtown incubator and meeting the startup teams, the 33-year-old councilman says, “I was thrilled that I wasn’t the youngest person in the room.” Gloria says he’s also encouraged by the vision of San Diego’s downtown as a “vibrant urban core where people want to come and grow business.”

In short, the new downtown EvoNexus incubator is fast becoming the needed focal point for a long overdue resurgence in San Diego’s tech startup ecosystem. But the reason it makes sense—that it seems to resonate so well—is that San Diego’s downtown already was becoming a magnet for Web startups. Companies like SweetLabs, Flud, and MindTouch have been down there for years.

Beyond EvoNexus, and beyond downtown San Diego, there is something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.

To get a better idea of just what is happening in San Diego’s tech scene, Web developer Michael Bastos created an online map that shows where 99 startups have taken root. “In terms of what’s happening in San Francisco, it’s tiny,” Bastos says. Still, it shows there are a lot more tech startups here than many folks realize. (I’ve embedded his map below.)

“It’s a matter of time—or maybe of equilibrium,” Bastos says. “When you have enough startups, when you have enough VCs, when you have enough talent, then you end up with a sustainable chain reaction.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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