San Diego’s Innovation Establishment Faces Its Own Innovators’ Dilemma

Can San Diego re-invent itself as a capital of innovation?

San Diego established itself as an innovation hub decades ago—understanding early on the importance of technology clusters in creating a critical mass of self-sustaining innovation. Today it is still renowned as a hotbed for hundreds of life sciences startups (We Are the Wildcatters) and as the home of Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) the world’s largest wireless chipmaker.

But whatever happened to San Diego’s prowess in software startups as the revolution in Internet software, app development, and software as a service went viral in Silicon Valley and places like New York and Boulder, CO?

The way Brant Cooper tells it, the venerable organizations that are most directly responsible for promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in San Diego are themselves suffering from The Innovator’s Dilemma.

In a provocative blog post, Cooper writes that San Diego’s innovation establishment—the legacy groups like Connect, CommNexus, Tech Coast Angels, San Diego Venture Group, and Software San Diego—are so tied to outdated values and organizational norms that they are failing a key sector of the tech entrepreneurs and innovators they were created to serve. Citing Brad Feld, a prominent tech investor and author of Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, Cooper argues that San Diego’s innovation establishment is led by the “old white guys” who just don’t get it. As he puts it:

San Diego is dominated by the old school; by people who were instrumental in diversifying San Diego’s economy 20 years ago, by former C-level executives of large, successful companies, and yes, even by some people who actually started and grew new businesses once upon a time. Great people, I’m sure. Many wish to ‘give back,’ want to see San Diego grow economically, and would like to contribute their expertise.

Unfortunately, the legacy institutions that serve as the vehicles for their contributions are anachronistic, decidedly old-school, and arguably more harmful to San Diego than beneficial.

Cooper quips that his dark secret is that he’s also an old guy. He is 49, “a happy papa,” and co-author (with Patrick Vlaskovits) of The Lean Entrepreneur, a book about the lean startup methodology and how visionary entrepreneurs can use new ventures to innovate, create new products, and disrupt markets. He returned to San Diego (where he grew up) in 2007, after spending 18 years in the Bay Area, where he attended U.C. Davis and worked at a series of tech startups.

After settling in suburban Encinitas, Cooper set out to … Next Page »

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

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