San Diego Tech Week Reflects Gains as Web Startups Amass Downtown
As the founding CEO of San Diego’s OpenCandy and its sister startup SweetLabs, Darrius Thompson says he usually keeps his head down and his attention focused on the nuts and bolts of building both companies, and on creating new Web-based software.
So it’s understandable that Thompson was unaware of a grassroots effort to help boost San Diego’s fledgling community of Web startups by getting successful tech entrepreneurs to spend some time coaching less-experienced startup founders. “I just didn’t get involved,” Thompson told me in a phone call that was scheduled over a week ago. “I’m running two companies here.”
Yet Thompson decided he should start making time. He says he began to realize over the past few weeks that many of San Diego’s young Web CEOs are yearning for help. In an e-mail, he writes: “I talked to a number of startups last week and could see the pain in their faces as they asked me for more of my involvement in the local scene. Most of the conversations revolved around the need for mentors or peers who have current direct experience in building products and organizations.”
In a phone call yesterday, Thompson adds, “You can just see their frustration. They are really intelligent individuals with really good ideas. Yet a lot of the questions they were asking were pretty straightforward.”
So the SweetLabs founder, who was previously a co-founder, product developer, and strategist at San Diego-based DivX, has become the latest volunteer at “20/20 Mentor Mashup,” a program that provides twice monthly mentoring sessions that match 20 experienced Web executives and serial entrepreneurs with 20 startup founders in round-robin sessions of 25 minutes.
“That’s exactly what we were hoping would happen,” says Melani Gordon, the co-founder and CEO of the craft brewery app TapHunter, who has helped organize the mentoring sessions—and who sees an emerging renaissance for Web and software startups in San Diego. “Now with the ‘Tech Events’ week, it just says the momentum is really picking up.”
In a bid to raise the visibility of their startup community even more, Gordon and other local tech entrepreneurs have organized a “Demo Night,” “Startup Grind,” “Tech Crawl,” and other events next week as a way of leading up to the 2013 San Diego Venture Summit on July 12. She says if there is one lesson that San Diego’s fledgling community of Web startups has taken to heart since the Foundry Group’s Brad Feld visited in April, it’s that entrepreneurs have to step up to serve as the leaders of their own startup communities.
As a co-founder and managing director at the Foundry Group, the Boulder, CO-based venture firm, Feld has invested in hundreds of tech startups, including such noteworthy deals as MakerBot, Fitbit, Zynga, and Cheezburger. For Gordon and others, Feld’s appearance in San Diego over two months ago (arranged by Xconomy and the Cooley law firm) became a tipping point in terms of rallying local entrepreneurs to action.
In his book “Startup Communities,” Feld writes:
In virtually every major city, there are long lists of different types of people and organizations who are involved in the startup community, including government, universities, investors, mentors, and service providers. Historically, many of these organizations try to play a leadership role in the development of their local startup community. Although their involvement is important, they can’t be the leaders. The entrepreneurs have to be the leaders.
With next week’s activities building toward the Venture Summit at the downtown Hilton San Diego Bayfront, with a keynote speech by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, Gordon views next week as a “telltale sign of this community pulling together. It’s actually been phenomenal. Everyone sees the power of working together instead of separately.”
It’s also fortunate that many, if not most, of San Diego’s Web startups are locating their headquarters in downtown San Diego, including StockTwits, the online social media network for stock traders that was previously based in Coronado. SweetLabs’ Thompson says that proximity is important because it minimizes the time he must carve out of his schedule to meet with startup CEOs.
Still, the schedule for the July 12 venture summit reflects the fact that other tech sectors have much bigger concentrations of companies in the San Diego area. The speakers include Chris Anderson of 3-D Robotics, Rebecca Boudreaux of Oberon Fuels, Charles Cantor of Sequenom, Stephen Coggeshall of ID Analytics, Sharon Presnell of Organovo, Larry Smarr, director of the Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego, and Larry Stambaugh of the Bioinspiration Centre at the San Diego Zoo.
So what are the largest innovation clusters in San Diego? I’m curious what others think. My list of San Diego’s top five sectors is:
1) Life sciences drug discovery. San Diego has a renowned history of specialized pharmaceutical and biotech startups that discover and prove the value of experimental drugs by advancing a compound to mid-stage clinical trials. But the region has relatively little expertise in late-stage drug commercialization. This is often cited as a key reason why so many biotechs are acquired by big pharmaceutical companies that move them out of town.
2) Genetic sequencing and biomedical diagnostics. Illumina and Life Technologies are the global market leaders, and there are many smaller companies with leading-edge applications of molecular diagnostics. A key situation to watch in the acquisition of Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies is whether Boston’s Thermo Fisher Scientific decides to keep its Ion Torrent fast sequencing division, or spin it off. (Although Life Tech is based in Carlsbad, Ion Torrent is mostly based in the Foster City, CA area around Applied Biosystems.)
3) Industrial biotechnology/agricultural biotechnology. San Diego’s biotech expertise is being applied to a host of new companies that are focused on developing chemicals and other products, including Synthetic Genomics, Genomatica, Cellana, Sapphire Energy, Cibus, Nucelis, Verenium, SG Biofuels, and others.
4) Wireless communications. Qualcomm’s renowned expertise in wireless technologies, including sensors and networking, is expanding into promising new areas, such as digital health.
5) Analytics. More than 100 companies in the greater San Diego area are focused on neural networking, data mining, pattern recognition, and related algorithms and technologies for analyzing data.