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Catalyzing Innovation In Pasadena, with Innovate Pasadena

Story by Benjamin F. Kuo

 

As much as the idea of "Silicon Beach" wants to represent the whole of the local technology industry in Los Angeles, there are -- as one would expect in such a large metropolitan area -- many different neighborhoods and communities spread across the region, all with their own individual identities, companies, and technology focuses. In the same way that the technology community is not the same when you're talking San Francisco versus Palo Alto versus San Jose, Southern California's technology communities have their own neighborhoods. One of those high profile neighborhoods here is Pasadena, home of Idealab, Caltech, OpenX, and many other high tech companies and institutions. A new effort in Pasadena, called Innovate Pasadena (www.innovatepasadena.com), is looking to become a catalyst for innovation and entrepreneurship in Pasadena. We caught up with Andy Wilson, who is behind the effort, to hear about why he thinks Pasadena needs its own technology identity.

What is Innovate Pasadena?

Andy Wilson: Innovate Pasadena is a grassroots effort to engage a cross section of the innovation, design, and entrepreneurship community in this part of Los Angeles, here in Greater Pasadena. It started around a year ago, as I was driving back from Santa Monica from an event. I thought, it's great what is going on in Santa Monica, but it's very hard to be part of the same community, given how far apart the cities are. So, I thought I'd see if there was an interest here to active a community in town. The initiative started a year ago, and we've now formalized that with key institutions, set a board of directors who are mostly representatives of those institutions, as well as successful entrepreneurial companies. We're focused on being a catalyst for collaboration and innovation in this part of Los Angeles.

Why Innovate Pasadena--why not just piggyback on the Silicon Beach brand?

Andy Wilson: The Silicon Beach stuff is great. In a way, it provided the inspiration for us. But, it's mostly centered around Santa Monica, and Santa Monica has gotten farther and farther away, due to traffic. It used to be 45 minutes away, but now it's an hour or hour and a half. People might be willing to do that for major events, but that's too high a barrier for people to be actively engaged in the Silicon Beach community. Community is really something more spontaneous than events. You bump into people and see them in every day life. Even if you came to an event in Santa Monica, it's so far away from this part of town, you're already thinking about the challenges of getting home and how long it will take you. It's very difficult to be an active and engaged member of the Westside entrepreneurship community, if you're way over here on the East side of town.

You might argue, just get over it. But, here's an opportunity to create a different community. It has somewhat common aspects, but it's also its own personality in this part of Los Angeles. As I started thinking about this, and talking with people who wanted to be leaders and actively engaged in this part of town, there was a massive, huge embrace of the concept. Because of that, I formally reached out to Caltech, Idealab, the Art Center College of Design, and all the CEOs I knew running tech companies out here. I asked them--is there a real benefit to planting the flag in creative startups, innovation, and creativity in this part of time, and do you want to be part of that? I got a resounding yes. That was the catalyst for trying to create some sort of infrastructure to facilitate the community here, which morphed into Innovate Pasadena.

What's the agenda behind Innovate Pasadena--will you be running events?

Andy Wilson: Our mission is to stimulate the ecosystem, primarily through collaboration. Compared to the Westside, we're more in the research domain. We have experts at Caltech, JPL, and other engineering and intellectual property inventors here. I think we have lots of inventions, and the goal here is to create a community which is able to turn more of that into innovation. There's an interesting statistic, which is the ratio of technology transfer out of Caltech and JPL. More than 80 percent of the IP out of those institutions gets licensed, but less than 20 percent of that goes into startups. Only a minority of those are in this area. We have all these ideas and invention, but we don't have enough innovation businesses coming out of that. The thesis is, we need collaboration, ideas, and IP, and to translate that into innovation. As a footnote, the Innovate Pasadena logo is IP--there's some symbolism around IP, intellectual property, and internet protocol, because we're more science oriented than the Westside, which is more entertainment content and consumer oriented. We want to create businesses and engage with entrepreneurs.

That's a long way of saying, the primary output of this effort is activities, programs, and events, to engage different elements of the community, and create relationships in that collaboration. Our launch event occurred a week and a half ago, when we announced our formal effort, branding, and website. The emphasis we have is on strengthening the connective tissue here, and programming is an important thing. That includes events and activities helping to connect inventors, scientists, and reachers, and encourage them to look more horizontally, and less vertically. We're taking a fairly unique approach to program development, however, in that we will get involved with nonprofits and people with program ideas, and figure out how to fund them. We're pursuing some best practices, around the accelerator model, and looking for program innovators who are passionate about doing something which is consistent with our mission. People can call us with ideas for programming, and pitch us on doing something. They can tell us what it is, what the business plan is, what the audience is, and the benefit of that event and we'll help them get started. We have already spun up three program activity tracks under that model. One is Techsparks, focused on social collaboration, run by Jennifer Chang; we've done something with the Tech Leaders Forum, run by Aaron Fyke; and we're also supporting another group which has coffee meetups on Friday. It's all about becoming a catalyst for translating things into action. We're going to do more calls for programming, provide seed capital, and provide the back office for those events. If we can help kick the friction out of event, we can help improve programs and create a portfolio of activities. Some will be wildly successful, some modestly successful, other may not gain traction--but if we do enough, over time, there will be a critical mass of activities in and around here to hold the pieces together.

Pasadena knoen in the Internet era as a place for innovation--why isn't that the case anymore?

Andy Wilson: Great question. My own history, is I was here when Overture was doing great things, and Citysearch, Earthlink, and eHarmony were all here. I think our advantage then was the first wave of web-based innovation was more in the area of hard sciences, which is the domain of JPL and Caltech. We were at ground zero. Somehow, ten to twelve years later, that community mojo has seemed to have fallen by the wayside, and we've instead seen a tremendous surge in Santa Monica instead. Honestly, I'm not sure what happened. I think part of that is eHarmony moved, Overture got sold, and other things that were driving critical mass somehow faded away. We've been fortunate recently to have the success of OpenX here in Pasadena, companies like Metacloud raising $10M here, companies like SupplyFrame and Spokeo. Those companies are more B2B, and less consumer. So, part of our goal is to acknowledge what we have. That's why when we started Innovate Pasadena we wanted to include JPL, Caltech, the Art Center, and we're also now incorporating the USC Marshall School. Key institutions like Idealab obviously are a great engine of technology-based startups. But, all those building blocks are operated fairly independently. We're using Innovate Pasadena to connect those things. Our first collaboration is with Eric Hovanec and Mark Breitenberg  at the Art Center. We had a conversation last summer, notedT that there were no accelerators in this part of town, and that there was an opportunity to create a unique proposition around technology and design because of the Art Center here. They put that together and launched it in the past few years. That's very exciting to have in the ecosystem.

What other resources are here?

Andy Wilson: One of the first things that we're doing is taking inventory. We're identifying the community, and identifying the members of the community. It's surprising how rich the community is here, we just haven't done a great job of identifying it. For example, JPL and Idealab have literally spun out around 300 companies. There have been billions of research dollars spend here. Innovate Pasadena is all about connecting the dots, creating a vibrant community, so we can create more local companies. I also think that, also those companies grow, it's important to create a compelling proposition for those companies to stay here, and preempt some of the issues like we saw with eHarmony moving to the West Side. We want to make it more sticky, being something beyond an individual company, and instead a part of a broader community of innovation.

What's your next big goal?

Andy Wilson: It's about creating a catalyst for collaboration. If you're familiar with Brad Feld's book, Startup Community, entrepreneurial efforts need to be run by the technology entrepreneurs and CEOs. We want that group to think creatively around what do we need to do, to stimulate collaboration across the design, technology, research, and invention areas. We want to include local resources like the Pasadena Angels, California Technology Ventures, and other building blocks, and connect the dots and create more opportunities for everyone to see each other. Creating that sense of familiarity is really important. We want to see more programming, more activities, and in the longer term, more and better companies. We want to see more startups, and we also want to be different than the Westside. Here, we're more intellectually property driven, and more focused on the areas of science and technology. Pasadena has more Nobel laureates per capita than anywhere in the world--there are lots of smart people here. However, most of their ideas get licensed out, and not turned into startup companies. In the long term, we'd like to see a higher population of great technology and design driven entrepreneurial companies in this part of town.

Thanks!