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 they are home alone by teaching them to play games to get food. Pet owners can check on their pets via an online camera. Co-founders Dan Knudsen and Leo Trottier have doctorates in neuroscience and cognitive science.

Doctible is a mobile app and Web-based platform that enables users to shop online for needed healthcare services offered in the vicinity. Users pay cash for services that are priced well below the minimum deductible payment required by health insurance.

Tortuga Logic, founded by four experts in data security with doctorates in computer science, has developed a software tool that hardware engineers can use to find security flaws in Internet-connected devices, including pacemakers, baby monitors, and automobiles.

PartySpark provides an online exchange at PartySpark.com that matches customers with part-time party planners to make weddings and other events more affordable. PartySpark, which bills itself as “the Airbnb of party planning,” takes a 15 percent cut of every vendor sale that goes through its online network.

Obrary has developed a catalog of software programs that machine shops, small manufacturers, and other customers can use to make custom products more efficiently and at lower cost.

Skylit Medical, has developed a handheld medical device for shining ultraviolet light on psoriasis, eczema, and related immune-based skin diseases. The device includes a wireless Internet connection so users can transmit images to a dermatologist or another expert caregiver.

Manta Instruments makes a scientific instrument that measures and characterizes nanoparticles more accurately and effectively than existing technology.

What Say You is a social website that poses a single question every day. For those who answer, What Say You connects the dots in interesting ways—revealing connections everyone shares about the questions of our time as well as the events and ideas shaping our world.

Lab Fellows has developed an online exchange that enables scientists to book times to use expensive lab equipment at other facilities. Universities and scientific institutes routinely purchase expensive lab equipment that is often used only 30 percent of the time.

Inova Drone has designed a commercial unmanned aerial system for firefighters and other first responders working at public safety agencies. The drone can track wearable sensors worn by first responders, and provides a live video feed to a controller device to improve overall situational awareness.

Lennd is a Web-based communication and collaboration platform for planning weddings and other events. CEO Chris Carver said project management applications like Basecamp and Slack have not been widely adopted by event planners.

Audvi has developed a mobile app that scans printed texts and audibly reads out the content. CEO and co-founder Dusten Pecor introduced himself by saying, “My name is Dusten. I’m dyslexic.” With 60 million dyslexic people in the United States, Pecor said Audvi “provides access to printed content in a way I never thought possible.”

GroupSolver is a market research application that enables users to prioritize ideas and responses from customer surveys. The program synthesizes customer feedback by generating word cloud graphics that highlight key ideas and themes.

UVA Mobile is a no-contract wireless service provider with a “design your own” service plan that offers customers more personalization, flexibility, and value than existing service providers. Founder and CEO Mehul Merchant was previously a senior executive with Simple Mobile, acquired by TracFone/American Movil, and Leap Wireless (Cricket), acquired by AT&T.

kSafe is the next-generation version of the Kitchen Safe, a smartphone-connected, time lock container for cookies and other temptations. CEO Ryan Tseng, a serial entrepreneur, says here is no override to the kSafe, which locks up any temptation (from cookies to video game controllers). It won’t open until you reach your goal. A kSafe funding campaign on Kickstarter that began March 24 met its $50,000 goal in two days.

EvoNexus Demo Day March 26, 2015

San Diego EvoNexus Demo Day

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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