Qualcomm Looks for Synergies With Tech Coast Angels’ Annual Quick Pitch Event to Spur Employee Entrepreneurship

Xconomy San Diego — 

Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) has begun to work more closely with Southern California’s Tech Coast Angels as part of an internal effort to promote an entrepreneurial culture at the San Diego wireless giant and to encourage employees to bring their ideas for innovations forward.

The company’s new focus on entrepreneurship and closer ties with Tech Coast Angels gained some visibility recently during the fourth annual “quick pitch” contest, which the angel investor group’s San Diego chapter convened at Qualcomm’s showcase auditorium, the 534-seat Irwin M. Jacobs Hall. While Qualcomm has hosted previous quick pitch events at other facilities, this was the first such event in the posh corporate auditorium, and “a big deal” for the telecommunications company, according to Ricardo dos Santos, a senior director of new business creation and innovation at Qualcomm Ventures.

When the San Diego Tech Coast Angels began organizing the 2010 quick pitch contest, they decided to accept applications from throughout Southern California, says Jeff Draa, who oversaw the event. “We opened up applications and got 130,” Draa says. “We got so many applications that I really had to solicit help from the TCA to give us a quick grade on the proposals.” Draa says members of the angels group winnowed the list to about 35 semi-finalists, and then 14 finalists who made the two-minute pitches to a panel of judges on October 7.

The finals of the quick pitch event drew a record audience of more than 400 people, including many Qualcomm employees who were encouraged by dos Santos to attend. Judges determined the winners based on the investment potential of their idea and presentation quality. The winners:

—Best Overall Pitch: Ritter Pharmaceuticals, a Los Angeles drug discovery and development startup focused on new therapeutic treatments for gastrointestinal diseases. Ritter has been developing a drug compound it says has the potential to become the first FDA-approved drug for the treatment of lactose intolerance.

—Best Content: Strategic Enzyme Applications, a San Diego cleantech chemistry company. Also known as SEA, the company specializes in developing chemical processes that convert lignin, a byproduct of biomass processing, into high-value fuels and chemicals that are currently only produced from petroleum processing.

—Best Pitch: Snapizzi, a Santa Barbara, CA-based startup that provides software to professional photographers for tagging and matching photos, as well as other products related to digital photography.

Dos Santos says he joined the Tech Coast Angels and volunteered to become a judge for the quick pitch event as part of a personal goal to bring the two groups closer. “I want to make it synergistic,” dos Santos told me by telephone after the event. “We don’t sponsor the Tech Coast Angels itself, just the quick pitch event.”

Dos Santos says he views the angels’ quick pitch event as similar to a program he founded within Qualcomm, called Venture Fest. It is basically an internal business plan competition that was formed within the Qualcomm Innovation Network, which was itself created as an “idea management system” for the more than 15,400 people who work for Qualcomm worldwide. Among other things, the network manages a Web-based tool that allows Qualcomm employees around the world to share, collaborate, and vet their ideas and innovations.

Dos Santos says he wants to recruit members of San Diego’s Tech Coast Angels to help counsel the employee-entrepreneurs enrolled in Venture Fest. “We’re trying to create an entrepreneurial culture here,” Dos Santos says. “I want a sort of a center of excellence to help our own entrepreneur-minded employees get results.”

Dos Santos says Qualcomm can provide some funding to help employees develop good ideas, and the Qualcomm Innovation Network typically selects 10 to 15 of the most-promising ideas to participate in a 3-month “bootcamp” program for in-house entrepreneurs.

Ultimately, a group of finalists are selected to make an internal presentation to Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs and other “C-level” executives in a bid to win corporate venture capital funding, or to get their innovation integrated in Qualcomm’s technology roadmap. “My Venture Fest is more elaborate,” dos Santos says, “because I need to partner with employees and bring in people from outside Qualcomm to help coach them.”