As Innovation Economy Grows, San Diego Seeks Dorm Room Entrepreneurs
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a lot of local money,” Bowles added. Out-of-town venture firms provide much of the funding for many new tech startups in San Diego. But he said that only makes it challenging—not impossible—for local entrepreneurs to raise venture capital.
Because VCs typically don’t hunt in San Diego, they just have to be pursued—which makes it important for San Diego tech entrepreneurs to find ways to plug into Northern California’s VC and angel networks.
Bowles told me the tech ecosystem also has a “generation gap” that makes it harder to get young entrepreneurs committed to stay in San Diego—especially after they graduate with a science, engineering, or business degree.
“I started my first company in ’94,” Bowles said, “and the big change that has happened since then—and not just in San Diego, but everywhere—is this idea that you could start a company in your dorm room. There’s a new generation of people who are inspired right out of college.”
The challenge here, Bowles said, is that San Diego’s previous generation of tech startups were dominated by entrepreneurs who were experts in their chosen field—with deep domain expertise in semiconductors, software, or biotechnology.
“What changed was that all of a sudden, it got to be cool to be an entrepreneur right out of your college dorm room,” Bowles said. “It created a gap between the entrepreneurs and the mentors. They don’t necessarily speak the same language.”
At about the same time, Bowles said the hottest innovations to emerge out of Silicon Valley involved social media like Facebook, the iPhone and mobile apps, and a new generation of Web-based companies and Software-as-a-Service technologies. “It didn’t look like the sort of things that traditional entrepreneurs have been doing in San Diego with their deep domain expertise,” he explained.
As a result, Bowles said the youngest generation of entrepreneurs in San Diego grew frustrated, and began to discount the advice they were getting from previous generations of local mentors. They also came to mistrust some of the nonprofit organizations that had been created to foster technology innovation and entrepreneurship—and had become part of the “innovation establishment” in San Diego.
Bowles said the situation became unfortunately polarized almost three years ago, when Brant Cooper, a local proponent of the lean entrepreneur business model for tech startups, described the pent-up frustrations and mistrust of young entrepreneurs in a blog that came to be known as “Brant’s Rant.”
Cooper’s blog incensed Martha Dennis, a serial entrepreneur and startup mentor with deep domain expertise, who responded with a post in the Xconomist Forum. She wrote that Cooper had taken a hatchet to San Diego’s well-established and highly respected organizations that provide startup support in this city and voiced “a ‘you-can’t-trust-anyone-over-30’ attitude about San Diego’s rich system for supporting entrepreneurs.”
In the years since this flare-up, a new generation of volunteers has stepped forward through organizations like Startup San Diego and EvoNexus to help early stage entrepreneurs in software and tech ventures. According to Neudecker, they are now looking in particular for ways to engage student entrepreneurs, and to bridge the generation gap in technology innovation in San Diego. (It has been easier to get students involved at SDSU and USD than at UC San Diego, he said.)
For Neudecker and others, the main event for the next generation of local innovation entrepreneurs is San Diego Startup Week, set for June 12-18. The five-day event is intended to build momentum and support for technology innovation with 80 scheduled events, “teach-ins,” and presentations across four tracks: Idea, Seed, Developer, and Scale. The Startup Week schedule also includes meetups, mingles, happy hours, and other social events.
Neudecker says the event has been doubling in size every year.
Last year, about 1,600 people registered for San Diego Startup Week. This year, Neudecker anticipates between 3,000 and 4,000 people will register this year. That would be a pretty good sign that the next generation of innovation entrepreneurs is gaining momentum here.