San Diego’s Free EvoNexus Tech Incubator Gains Qualcomm Expertise

5/22/12Follow @bvbigelow

Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM), the San Diego wireless technology giant, says today it is joining forces with EvoNexus, the free tech incubator operated by the nonprofit industry group CommNexus.

The move adds a new dimension of business and technical expertise to EvoNexus, which relies heavily on volunteer tech executives and others to help mentor entrepreneurs enrolled in the program. EvoNexus operates two incubators in San Diego, one is downtown and the other in the University City neighborhood, and provides fully furnished office space, utilities, and other services to startups at no charge.

“A big differentiator for EvoNexus—from an investor’s or entrepreneur’s point of view—is that we are the best deal in the country because we’re completely free, except you have to pay for your parking,” says Kevin Hell, the former DivX CEO who has been overseeing EvoNexus for the past year.

Now EvoNexus will collaborate with Qualcomm Labs to develop a track within EvoNexus called QualcommLabs@EvoNexus.

Qualcomm Labs is expected to serve a role at EvoNexus that is similar to its function within Qualcomm, where it helps to identify and assess new products and market opportunities developed internally through Qualcomm R&D. For example, Qualcomm housed its wireless health initiative in the Qualcomm Labs business unit (known at the time as Qualcomm Labs Services) before moving it into its new Qualcomm Life subsidiary.

Qualcomm Labs also wants to guide startups developing innovative technology in certain areas, such as machine-to-machine communications, into the EvoNexus program. Qualcomm and EvoNexus did not disclose the financial terms of Qualcomm’s participation in the program, if there are any. But startups admitted into the QualcommLabs program will get separate seed funding from Qualcomm Labs as well as free space in an EvoNexus incubator.

Qualcomm did not disclose how much seed funding it plans to provide to companies admitted to the program.

“With Qualcomm, the reach we’ll have throughout the region and beyond to get companies to come to this will be phenomenal,” says CommNexus CEO Rory Moore. “It provides a great deal of credibility, but we also have the expectation that this incubator will return high dividends for the region.”

CommNexus manages the EvoNexus incubators and pays the bills. CommNexus, in turn, is supported chiefly by Qualcomm and about 35 other major technology companies in the San Diego area that each pay about $25,000 each as venture sponsors, Moore says. The group’s biggest financial support, however, comes from The Irvine Co., the privately held commercial real estate developer, which provides the office space used by CommNexus and EvoNexus at no cost. The value of that comes close to $1 million a year, says Moore, who estimates The Irvine Co. provided another $1 million in custom tenant improvements for the downtown EvoNexus incubator. “They are the ‘uber’ venture sponsor,” he quips.

Startups will be admitted into the QualcommLabs program for as long as two years. Experienced Qualcomm Labs employees will serve as mentors, and the startup CEOs also will have access to the EvoNexus network of industry experts and investors. In their statement today, Qualcomm and EvoNexus say, “Over time we expect QualcommLabs@EvoNexus companies to graduate the incubator as they secure venture funding or interest from strategic investors.”

Qualcomm Labs maintains a robust pipeline of its own internal projects, says Liz Gasser, a senior director of strategic marketing at Qualcomm Internet Services. But Gasser adds that Qualcomm “started looking at the idea of external incubation” as a way to “broaden our horizons.” In talking with Hell and Moore, she says, “We decided there actually was something quite special we could do here.”

With other tech incubators, Gasser says startups are typically enrolled for only three to six months. That might work well for Web 2.0 startups or mobile app developers, but semiconductor startups and companies developing wireless technologies usually require a longer incubation period—“so providing up to two years at no cost is a huge advantage,” Gasser says.

EvoNexus has enough space for a total of roughly 30 startups, depending on the size of each company, and currently houses 22. Many of those were admitted under a “foundry” program at EvoNexus that provides free office space, mentoring, and related services for just six months. While a handful of those foundry companies would qualify for a long-term “forge” program that can last as long as two years, most will graduate from the incubator—so vacancies are expected to regularly become available.

Since CommNexus founded EvoNexus in 2009, the incubator has graduated six companies and helped its fledgling companies raise a total of $82 million in startup funding.

Startups interested in the QualcommLabs@EvoNexus program are invited to apply by July 3 through the EvoNexus website.

While all tech entrepreneurs are encouraged to apply, the team screening applications are particularly interested in proposals in four areas:

—Connected objects and machine-to-machine communications.

—Low cost backhaul solutions in wireless networks.

—Wireless health and education platforms.

—Sustainability and green technologies for portable devices.

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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