Initiative to Boost SoCal’s Startup Scene Teams With GV Founder
A Silicon Valley entrepreneur has set out to boost the startup ecosystem in San Diego and the rest of Southern California—and he already has scored a coup by partnering with Bill Maris, the founder and former CEO of Google Ventures, now known as GV.
Steve Poizner, who sold two of his startups to Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) and served as California Insurance Commissioner a decade ago, has signed a collaboration agreement with a venture fund that Maris founded in suburban San Diego.
Maris raised $160 million last month for the inaugural fund of Section 32, a new venture firm he founded in Encinitas, a coastal community about 30 miles north of San Diego. (He would not disclose investors in the fund.) He has been living in the San Diego area for years, although he has tried to maintain a low profile here.
Poizner said the partnership deal he reached with Section 32 is intended to help seed more startups in the region—and he wants to establish similar collaborations with other elite venture firms. One of his initial goals is to draw more venture capitalists to Southern California in general, and to San Diego in particular. But that’s just the beginning, Poizner said in a recent interview.
As traffic, crime, cost of living, and other conditions “continue to choke the lifeblood” out of Silicon Valley, Poizner said he sees an opportunity for Southern California to “emerge as a tech center on a par with Silicon Valley over the next five years.”
“It’s very clear to me that SV [Silicon Valley] is becoming more and more saturated, and it’s difficult for entrepreneurs to compete with SV titans for talent and office space,” Poizner wrote in a recent e-mail. “So timing is ideal for SoCal to take steps to emerge as a tech hub on par with SV—which if successful, would have a trillion [dollar] impact on our state and country…and good for SV too…”
As a first step toward realizing his vision for Southern California, Poizner has created a nonprofit consortium of universities and research institutes to work together on initiatives for entrepreneurs, venture investors, and innovators throughout Southern California. Under their collaboration agreement, the consortium, officially known as the Alliance for Southern California Innovation, will refer promising startups to Maris and Section 32.
According to a source familiar with the formation of Section 32, the venture firm’s name is a non-infringing nod to the stealthy Section 31 in the science-fiction franchise “Star Trek.” According to Wikipedia, Section 31 is an officially nonexistent autonomous intelligence and defense organization.
In an e-mail Sunday, Maris described Section 32 as a general VC fund that invests across all stages and industries. “I am particularly interested in highly scalable companies disrupting existing industries that are being revolutionized or have yet to be touched by the power of large scale supercomputing (life sciences, agriculture, transportation, etc), and what I call frontier technologies, such as artificial intelligence, machine brain interfaces, and the like. But in the end, this business is about the unexpected and not knowing exactly what the next big idea is, which is part of the fun.”
While Maris said he will be scouting for startups in San Diego, where he has a special interest, he plans to invest “anywhere on the planet (or beyond) where I see a glimpse of the future and an opportunity to empower positive change and generate returns.”
San Diego has had a strong startup ecosystem, especially in the life sciences. But these days you can count the number of hometown venture firms on one hand. When asked if he sees that as a problem, Maris wrote, “One person’s problem is another’s opportunity. It has historically been a problem for the local technology ecosystem, but all the seeds are here.
“There is a unique opportunity in Southern California which stems from the concentration of world-class research institutions and universities, opportunity to build a vibrant venture community, and individuals who have an entrepreneurial spirit,” Maris continued. “But at the end of the day, anything I can do to speed the transfer of technology from the lab into the real world where it can help people is something I am interested in doing.”
So far, the San Diego-based Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine has joined the alliance, along with seven Southern California research universities: The California Institute of Technology; UC San Diego; University of Southern California; UCLA; UC Irvine; UC Santa Barbara; and UC Riverside. The alliance also has entered into a collaboration agreement with EvoNexus, the pro bono tech incubator based in San Diego and Irvine, CA.
In a statement last week, the Alliance said it also has engaged on a pro bono basis the Boston Consulting Group, a management consulting firm where Poizner worked, to assess the relative strength of Southern California’s innovation economy.
To strengthen the Alliance itself, Poizner has enlisted Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO now serving as executive chairman at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and Oracle vice chairman Jeff Henley to serve as strategic advisers on best practices and lessons learned from the Bay Area. The Silicon Valley lawyer Larry Sonsini, CalPERS chief investment officer Ted Eliopoulos, and Gene Sykes, a Goldman Sachs managing director in Los Angeles, have also joined the advisory committee.
Aside from Poizner, the Alliance board of directors includes Irwin Jacobs, Qualcomm’s founding chairman and emeritus CEO; Michael Yanover, head of business development at the Los Angeles sports and talent agency CAA; Marc Stern, chairman of the Los Angeles asset management firm TCW Group; Scott Wolfe, a partner in the Latham and Watkins law firm’s San Diego office; Thomas Gewecke, chief digital officer of Warner Bros. Entertainment; and Sherry Lansing, the former Paramount CEO who served as a Qualcomm board member for 10 years.
As a serial entrepreneur, Poizner’s big deal occurred in 2000 when Qualcomm paid $1 billion to acquire San Jose, CA-based SnapTrack, a GPS software technology startup he founded with Norman Krasner. After Qualcomm acquired his educational technology startup EmpoweredU in 2014, Poizner said he moved to San Diego with his wife, working initially as a senior vice president with Qualcomm’s emerging business portfolio, and later on the startup selection committee for EvoNexus (San Diego’s nonprofit tech incubator) and at UC San Diego’s Rady School of Management.
“I’ve gotten a really good sense of the startup world in San Diego and Southern California, and to be able to compare that with Silicon Valley,” Poizner said by phone last week. He contends that Silicon Valley’s big companies, like Google, Apple, and Facebook, make it a tough place for startups to thrive.
Poizner also has demonstrated an abiding interest in politics. He was elected in 2007 to a four-year term as state insurance commissioner, and ran as a Republican for California governor in 2010. He lost in the Republican primary to Meg Whitman, who then fell to Jerry Brown. Last year, Poizner supported Ohio Governor John Kasich’s presidential campaign.
Poizner said he’s now campaigning to boost the startup ecosystem from Santa Barbara to San Diego because he enjoys “spearheading big/bold positive change.” He wrote in a recent e-mail, “I do all of the work here as a volunteer, and have no/zero financial interest.”