EvoNexus Incubator Transforms CommNexus as SD Startup Scene Grows

After 16 EvoNexus startups made short presentations at a Demo Day in San Diego last week, the big news was perhaps not that the audience voted Sonic VR as “champion,” or that CEO Jason Riggs left afterward for an EvoNexus-hosted dinner with a dozen investors.

What was arguably more impressive is how EvoNexus is becoming a rally point for the tech community in San Diego, which was evident in the size of the crowd  that came to hear the startups pitch their plans Thursday evening. The event just keeps growing. For its third Demo Day, EvoNexus moved the event from its downtown office to a 295-seat auditorium at UC San Diego’s Rady School of Management. It sold out days in advance, and still there was standing room only.

EvoNexus operates as a free incubator (with “no strings attached”) for tech startups in San Diego and Orange County, and it is becoming a big deal here. The caliber of the startups coming out of the EvoNexus program is clearly improving—the teams have more serial entrepreneurs, seasoned CEOs, and technology PhDs—and the quality of the volunteers advising EvoNexus teams has also taken a quantum leap.

Sonic VR, the audience favorite, was founded seven months ago with proprietary technology for creating three-dimensional, high-fidelity audio. It might be the biggest innovation in headphones since Bose introduced its noise-cancelling technology. CTO Joy Lyons was previously the manager of acoustic systems engineering at Swiss device maker Logitech, and CEO Jason Riggs was an engineering manager at Logitech and Pioneer Electronics, and worked as a senior product manager for such companies as Mojo Pages, Active Network, and Qualcomm.

More importantly, some of San Diego’s most successful technology executives are getting involved as mentors and angel investors—people like EcoATM co-founder Mark Bowles and former CEO Tom Tully, former Qualcomm engineering VP Craig Lauer, ViaSat CTO Steve Hart, and former Cricket Wireless strategy chief Bill Ingram.

EvoNexus logo 2015Such factors help explain why applications for this spring’s EvoNexus program jumped by 40 percent over last fall’s round, from 150 to 212. An EvoNexus spokesman says they are looking to admit 20 to 25 startups at its two San Diego incubators (downtown and University City) and eight companies at the new EvoNexus incubator near U.C. Irvine, which began admitting startups in December.

It would be premature to compare EvoNexus to the elite accelerator programs like Y Combinator or Techstars. But the EvoNexus juggernaut has gained so much momentum over the past year or so that CommNexus, the nonprofit industry group that founded EvoNexus in 2009, changed its name to EvoNexus last month. “It just became one of those things where the brand became so powerful, especially as we expanded into Orange County,” says EvoNexus CEO Rory Moore.

According to Moore, the EvoNexus program has become a great attractor for strategic partners like Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM), ViaSat (NASDAQ: VSAT), and Cisco Systems (NASDAQ: CSCO). All three provide substantial financial support for EvoNexus, as well as seed-stage funding for EvoNexus tech startups that align with their respective technology roadmaps. Dozens of other technology companies, banks, commercial real estate firms, and service providers also have stepped up to support the incubator, and to get an inside track on the innovative technologies and startups incubating there.

In fact, sponsorship revenue for the EvoNexus incubator has grown so strongly that Moore says he’s changed the business model for the nonprofit industry group, so it no longer relies primarily on the revenue generated from local events. In short, the EvoNexus incubator has become the centerpiece of the industry group’s operations, its primary method for generating revenue, and an engine for expanding the tech startup ecosystem in San Diego and Irvine, CA.

Here’s a rundown of the EvoNexus companies that presented at Demo Day:

Sonic VR, which was voted “Demo Day Pitch Champion” by the audience, has developed headphone technology that adapts to the anatomy of the listener’s ears and transmits realistic 3D audio, so a video game player in a virtual reality world can hear noises behind them.

CleverPet, which was runner-up in the audience vote, is an Internet-connected feeding device that keeps pets occupied when … Next Page »

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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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