Building an Entrepreneurial Pipeline in Santa Cruz

8/1/13Follow @wroush

This is Part 3 of a three-part series on efforts to create a stand-alone startup culture in Santa Cruz, CA. Part 1 was published on July 30 and Part 2 was published on July 31.

UC Santa Cruz, tucked into the folds of a redwood-covered hill about three miles outside the downtown, is the city’s richest intellectual resource. One obvious way to fill the city’s talent pool and build a stronger entrepreneurial culture would be to create a pipeline that carries more graduating UCSC students into the local startup scene—the way Stanford University supplies Silicon Valley with a constant flow of young engineers and MBAs. But efforts in that direction have only just begun.

The truth is that town-gown relations in Santa Cruz have never been entirely smooth. Many old-timers in this once conservative seaside city didn’t want the university in the first place, predicting (correctly) that the presence of tens of thousands of students and faculty would lead to a leftward push in the town’s politics. A protracted lawsuit brought by the city, the county, and neighboring residents to stop university expansion plans—finally settled in 2008—cost the community years of potential progress, to the exasperation of many businesspeople.

“The university has been here for 40 years and there are still people in town who are mad about that,” says Neuner. “But this is the goose that lays the golden eggs. This is where the jobs are, this is where the innovation is happening. People are just now starting to figure out ways to connect the university to the town and vice versa.”

Bradley Smith, an adunct faculty member in UC Santa Cruz Department of Computer Engineering, says more students would stay in Santa Cruz if given the opportunity.

Bradley Smith, an adunct faculty member in UC Santa Cruz Department of Computer Engineering, says more students would stay in Santa Cruz if given the opportunity.

Predictably, many UC Santa Cruz graduates with degrees in areas like computer science or biomolecular engineering seek jobs in Silicon Valley, Boston, and other big tech hubs. But Bradley Smith, an adjunct faculty member in the computer engineering department who earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at the university and now oversees much of the campus’s IT network, says more business-inclined graduates would probably stay in Santa Cruz after graduation if they had the opportunity. “There is a non-trivial group of [budding entrepreneurs] who come through as students—maybe a third, or 40 percent—who would love to tap into the dynamics of Silicon Valley, but grow their companies in Santa Cruz,” Smith says.

But among students and former students, there isn’t a perception that UC Santa Cruz is set up to meet that desire. “Getting people started in the startup world is not something the university embraces,” says Civinomics’ Robert Singleton. “Is it anything like Stanford? No way in hell. None of the professors are going to drop what they are doing and help you make a product.”

In fact, there are formal programs in place at the university to cultivate students’ entrepreneurial instincts and connect them to the city—but they’re still so new that they are only beginning to have an impact.

Three years ago, the university’s engineering school set up the Center for Entrepreneurship, or C4E. Director Brent Haddad says its mission is threefold: helping to commercialize inventions from the university’s labs, building a general culture of entrepreneurship on campus, and perhaps most importantly, teaching students how to start companies. To a large extent, that means building a network of mentors and advisors from the private sector. “You have a very skilled pool of students coming out of the university, and you have a nice place for them to live,” Haddad says. “The next piece is, do you have the resources such as venture capital, legal assistance, and other entrepreneurs to bounce ideas off of?”

As the branch of the University of California closest to Silicon Valley, UC Santa Cruz is officially tasked with continuing-education duties in the South Bay, which means it can tap some of the needed resources through its extension campus off Highway 101 in Santa Clara. For the last two years, the extension has been the scene of a series of business design showcases where student teams pitch startup projects to panels of judges drawn from local businesses and venture firms. There’s also an annual entrepreneurship summit in Santa Cruz proper, and C4E collaborates with the city’s economic development department to sponsor a local internship program called … Next Page »

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

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  • Sandra Kaufman

    Excellent, excellent article, Wade. I wish you would also try and have it published in the Sentinel, if that is possible. Thanks for writing it.

  • Thomas Clements

    Great articles; I love your city. I am sure you will do well.

  • Robert Singleton

    The Project for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (PIE) hasn’t been active for over a year now from my understanding. We used to get interns from them (of varying degrees of quality), but no longer because we lost contact with them.

    I do think there is a lot of truth to Bonnie’s last statement, in that we do have a problem with telling our story. But I feel the problem is more closer to we have trouble telling our story to ourselves, that is most people in town don’t even know a tech scene exists.

    • Career Center

      Agreed! PIE has been inactive, but I heard fieldstudy.net is the replacement!

  • bespoked

    I have been enjoying your articles for some time now, so
    imagine my delight when I saw that you had chosen my home town as the focus for this article. I’d bet I’m not the only “local” whose understanding of their own area’s economy has been improved. Regarding the lack of anchor companies: another “headwind” we’re facing here is the high cost of living and
    accompanying tech salaries that are high relative to many other regions. This
    creates considerable pressure to move these jobs to those lower-salary regions.
    And if the decision makers themselves don’t live here, they might not be
    personally-motivated, or even able, to take the impacts of their decisions on
    the economic health of the area into account. All of this contributes to the
    lack of Google-style anchor companies, I suspect.

  • CS Prof

    “None of the professors are going to drop what they are doing and help you make a product.” Not true. I, and several of my colleagues in the School of Engineering, have been heavily involved in startups, though typically in Silicon Valley, not Santa Cruz. But there’s usually more talent and easier access to money in SV, based on our experiences trying to found a startup in SC several years ago.