More than 200 people gathered last night at the Crowne Plaza to celebrate the early success of the Ventura Ventures Technology Center (V2TC) – the city’s high-tech incubator located at 505 Poli, the former county building behind City Hall. The event got huge publicity in the regional high-tech blogosphere. And most of the people who attended were NOT the usual local suspects, but heavy-hitting high-tech financiers, interesting high-tech entrepreneurs, and representatives of all our local colleges and universities, who are looking to make connections.
From the standpoint of Ventura’s long-term prosperity, the V2TC launch party was maybe the most important event we’ve had in Ventura in many, many years.
The purpose of the event was to showcase the V2TC incubator – a city-initiated effort to provide inexpensive but useful space for budding high-tech entrepreneurs. The incubator opened a year ago – meaning it’s been in operation during the worst economic climate in decades. From nothing 12 months ago, we now have no less than 10 budding companies housed in the incubator. Some of the most exciting ones are:
-- Lottay.com is a web site that allows people to use PayPal to give money (even money contained in gift cards) as a meaningful and fun gift.
-- Trade Desk is an exchange for online ad networks. Trade Desk founder Jeff Green’s last startup was sold to Microsoft after two years.
-- Geodelics has raised $3 million in venture capital and is creating what many folks are calling the most compelling platform for location-based information on the mobile web.
The incubator’s really important, but it’s only one part of Ventura’s broader economic development effort to target growing high-tech and biotech companies. The city took a radical approach, but we’re beginning to see results. Not only are young companies growing up in the incubator, but now Ventura has attracted its high-tech financiers – the BuenaVentura Fund, operated by John and Dan Peate of Thousand Oaks, who recently opened up shop in the old Bank of Italy building downtown. (That’s the one with Riviera Bistro downstairs.)
The way we went about this was not just radically but potentially controversial as well. Several years ago, the city set aside some funds for economic development (the money had resulted from a bond refinancing and therefore was what we call “one-time money”). After a lengthy discussion with the Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders in town, we realized that we were staring at a great opportunity. High-tech startups were spinning off of UC Santa Barbara (just like high-tech start-ups in the Silicon Valley spin off of Stanford) and biotech startups were spinning off of Amgen in Thousand Oaks, the world’s largest biotech company.
They call Santa Barbara “The Digital Coast” and the Calabasas-to-Camarillo corridor “The Technology Corridor”. We were billing ourselves as the place where “the Digital Coast meets the Technology Corridor,” but the truth was that the Digital Coast and the Technology Corridor were both overlooking us. An ocean of jobs and wealth were being created all around us, and yet were in the desert. There were a lot of reasons why: No university, a history as a blue-collar town, and, maybe most important, a longstanding reputation – deserved or not – as place where the city government was anti-business.
So we took most of the economic development money and used it to partner with DFJ Frontier, a high-tech financing company in Santa Barbara dedicated to assisting young high-tech companies in California but outside of Silicon Valley. It was a controversial move. To my knowledge, no municipality in America had ever invested in a venture capital fund before – and we could not guarantee that the companies would locate in Ventura. We did not take this step lightly. We knew the opportunity was there. Communities all over the country are launching economic development efforts base don the assumption that they can attract some Silicon Valley-style businesses, but in my experience they don’t really have a chance. They’re lacking the ingredients. We’re not. We have a great lifestyle that the entrepreneurs like, and we’re very close to the big institutions that spin off startups.
And the truth is we weren’t just investing in a fund. With DFJ’s help, the city soon began holding events for potential high-tech entrepreneurs here in town, connecting them with lawyers, financiers, and others. We also began to participate in The Biotech Forum, a network of entrepreneurs, financiers, and others in the Calabasas/Thousand Oaks area who focus on nurturing biotech startups in our region.
Soon we realized we needed a place for these newly financed entrepreneurs to grow their companies in a fun, creative environment, so we took a little of the economic development money to outfit one floor at 505 Poli (which we had just bought from the county) as a business incubator. All of a sudden, the entrepreneurs in this area who were getting funding from the venture capital companies had a place to have an office. And now, after one year, we have 10 companies – small ones, with only a few employees; but all of them have the potential to get big fast – creating lots of good jobs as well as wealth that can help endow our community for decades to come.
In the last 200 years, Ventura as a community has reinvented itself over and over again. It began as a farming town; then became a small port; and for a long time it was an oil town. Because of our close proximity to two Naval bases and our status as the county seat, we have had a strong complement of government jobs, which has brought us a lot of economic stability in recent years. In the last decade or so, we’ve had a flowering of music, arts, culture, and entertainment. And now we’re reinventing ourselves again – as a place where fast-growing companies in fast-growing sectors of the economy want to start up and grow.
One additional point: We sometimes get criticized for focusing too much on downtown and not enough on other parts of town. This is an understandable concern, since most Venturans don’t live downtown; and many folks think the only reason we at City Hall think downtown is important is to attract tourists to spend money. But the truth is downtown is crucial to attracting high-tech and biotech businesses as well.
Experience elsewhere has made it pretty clear that one of the keys to attracting the “creative class” of high-tech and biotech entrepreneurs and financiers. These folks want to live in communities that have a lot going on and have a great sense of place. They love downtowns and restaurants and music and culture and surfing. If we had not invested so much in our downtown over the last 20 years, the high-tech scene wouldn’t be happening here.
In closing, I’d like to do a shoutout to one key city staff member who has made this all happen – Alex Schneider, the manager of the incubator. Alex is always on top of the high-tech scene, and it’s his enthusiasm and savvy, as much as anything else, that is making this thing go. Thanks, Alex.