Santa Cruz, the City Over the Hill, Works to Build Its Own Startup Culture

7/30/13Follow @wroush

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a startup employee duck out for a lunchtime hike. “This is one of those rare cities that are surrounded by beautiful open space,” says Brent Haddad, an environmental engineer and former energy entrepreneur who now directs the Center for Entrepreneurship at UC Santa Cruz. “You can be on a path through the redwoods and minutes later you’re on a white, sandy beach.”

Then there’s the food. With its proximity to Watsonville and the Salinas Valley, one of California’s lushest farm valleys, Santa Cruz is home to some of the longest-running farmers’ markets in the country, and it is arguably the world capital of the organic/sustainable food movement and the “locavore” concept (eating food that’s locally produced). The Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz “basically invented organic farming,” according to Neuner. Odwalla, the fruit juice and smoothie giant now owned by Coca-Cola, was founded in Santa Cruz in 1980, and the city is also home to the Coalition of California Organic Farms.

The university itself counts as one of Santa Cruz’s biggest assets—and by far its largest employer. In addition to its agricultural work, UC Santa Cruz is a leader in areas like marine biology, genomics, and gaming. Bioinformatician David Haussler led a team that completed the first sequences in the Human Genome Project, and the UCSC Genome Browser developed in Haussler’s lab is essentially the Wikipedia of genomics—an open-source repository of gene sequence data across dozens of species. The crown jewel of the university’s young Baskin School of Engineering is the Expressive Intelligence Studio, which is routinely ranked as one of the world’s top graduate game design programs.

Local specialties like surfboard manufacturing and organic food may not sound particularly high-tech. But you might be surprised how much computer-aided design and material science know-how goes into a surfboard these days—and Neuner thinks there’s room for technology entrepreneurs to use e-commerce, mobile, and other digital channels to spread the Santa Cruz brand to the world.

“When people think about Silicon Valley, they think technology, and that’s great,” he says. “But here you can think technology, sports, recreation, tourism, marine sciences, organic farming, and the locavore movement. All of that is what makes a rich opportunity for us to stand out, not just against Silicon Valley but against the world.”

In Part 2 of this story, we answer Fogelsong’s second question: how strong is Santa Cruz’s legacy of successful companies and entrepreneurs? Part 3, coming August 1, will look at the third question, about the city’s supply of talent, as well as efforts to reverse perceptions that Santa Cruz is anti-business.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://tachyonlabs.com Tané Tachyon

    Well-done article! Though the “no one ever speaks of Santa Cruz as part of the Bay Area” line got a big WTF reaction from this Santa Cruz person.

  • Steven Graff

    Certainly amongst the nearly 30,000 commuters who brave the “treacherous” highway 17 there are more than Ms. Tachyon and myself that speak of Santa Cruz being part of the Bay Area. Many of the professional service providers I work with regularly refer to Santa Cruz as being part of the larger SF Bay Area and Silicon Valley when trying to explain its location and provide reasons to be included in consideration for projects. My observation is they do so with at least as much frequency as including themselves in the “Monterey Bay” area.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

    Thanks Steven and Tane. For many purposes such as business pitches, I think it does suit Santa Cruz and Santa Cruzans to be thought of as part of the San Francisco Bay Area. But most of the folks I spoke with are trying to contribute to a cultural identity for Santa Cruz that is explicitly anti-Bay Area.

    Judging from Ms. Tachyon’s surname, she shouldn’t have any trouble with the commute over Highway 17 — she can get there faster than light. :)

  • Laura

    Santa Cruz is beautiful city and many wonderful people live here! It is a different atmosphere then Silicon Valley! Our city leaders and supervisors need to get a grip on the large elephant that is not mentioned in this article! The severe drug and homeless situation! Unfortunately word is out in the homeless and druggie community that Santa Cruz is the place to come to easily score drugs and get free services! So until city leaders start to think about its citizens and not about enabling people we are going to continue to have a very big issue that will keep out quality businesses !

  • Gregg Barnes

    I lived most of my life in Capitola. A few years ago I moved in with my ex in the east bay. I Started working QA with Sony, and have been doing QA for almost 9 years. I would LOVE to move back to Santa Cruz, and get a job doing QA over there. I actually like the drive over 17, but I love idea of living and working in that crazy, unusual and awesome city.

  • http://tachyonlabs.com Tané Tachyon

    Wade – theoretically, sure, but in practice I stick to the speed of telecommuting.

  • Joseph A. French

    Having been posted at Fort Ord during my Army years and then a student at UCSC, I’ve always considered Santa Cruz as part of the Monterey Bay area, not the SF Bay area. I like both bay areas immensely, for slightly different reasons, but I do see a big distinction. I would love to start up my multimedia production company in the Santa Cruz area, though, and maybe live in Felton again (spent a year there living among the redwoods and I loved it), but my problem isn’t the proximity to San Francisco, but the huge distance to Hollywood, which is where much of my business connections would be based.

  • cat

    The community here does have some big challenges with respect to the homeless. The police chief here summed it up eloquently: Santa Cruz is a compassionate place, and it’s great. I love that,” he said. “But compassion without accountability is nothing more than enabling. And we are seeing that play out before our very eyes.”

    That said, The new Golden State Warrior D league found a great home and following, helping those of us in the business community see a nice influx of support.

  • Chris Jordan

    Refreshing to read good news from Santa Cruz! I have read similar “top 10″ lists (best to work, best to live, and so on) and Santa Cruz is never on them – or even mentioned. I just read a “10 best” article; San Jose, San Francisco, San Diego – then the rest in other states. I sure enjoyed seeing Santa Cruz finally mentioned; not in that article – but this one.

  • KM

    Great article – I was born and raised in Santa Cruz county, and loved learning to drive the hill when I was a teenager! FYI, the reason Santa Cruz is never mentioned as part of the Bay Area is because it isn’t. Santa Cruz County is the northern-most county of the region known as the Central Coast. We have far more in common with Monterey county (agriculturally, geographically) than with Santa Clara County. From how it was explained to me in college, I believe the Bay Area designation required a participating county to actually border on the SF Bay.