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101 Corridor Gains Speed as High-Tech Haven

Nobody can quite agree on a unifying nickname for the area from Calabasas to Camarillo--whether “Conejo Valley computing complex” or “Highway 101 technology corridor"--but it’s possibly the hottest place on the cutting edge of technology in the United States.

Grouped around the advancing technology of computer networking, dozens of growing companies occupy an area straddling the Los Angeles and Ventura county line.

Venture capital is backing recent start-ups such as Accelerated Networks, ComCore Semiconductor and OneBox Networks as it earlier backed now-sizable companies in the area such as Vitesse Semiconductor, Xircom and ACT Networks.

The Calabasas-Camarillo area is still young in entrepreneurial excitement. Local real estate owners still want long leases from new companies that worry about surviving the winter; engineering talent is in constant demand from all companies. Ventura County has just organized an economic development collaboration effort between governments of its 10 cities and the business community.

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The aim is to attract venture capital and entrepreneurs. “The Anderson business school at UCLA told us their students want to start their own companies,” says Frank Schillo, a Ventura County supervisor. “We said we’d like them to come here.”

“This area is like Silicon Valley when it was young,” says John Guidon, president of ComCore in Agoura Hills. ComCore opened its doors in January with $6 million in venture capital and a plan to make a digital chip that enables local area computer networks to operate at higher speeds.

Indeed, some of ComCore’s 35 employees, along with some of its venture capital, come from Silicon Valley--the Northern California center of electronics technology. “House prices are more reasonable here and the schools are good,” says Guidon.

But what distinguishes the L.A.-Ventura Corridor from countless Silicon Valley wannabes is its technological history and its focus on a growing industry--computer networking.

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Defense work, at Litton Industries, Lockheed and other companies, provided a technical tradition to the area--as well as the first jobs for many of today’s entrepreneurs, who immigrated to the United States.

And the linking of computers so that a company can communicate instantly with its employees, suppliers and customers is the great growth industry of this age. As one indication, experts predict that commerce on the Internet will grow to $200 billion a year early in the next century, from less than $10 billion today.

The small companies of L.A.-Ventura work in the trenches of that expansive trend, producing devices to help companies save money by setting up computer networks on existing phone lines.

ACT Networks, in Camarillo, founded in 1987 by Martin Shum, originally from Hong Kong--and grown to 265 employees and $50 million in annual sales today--makes customized hardware and software combinations that enable voice, data and fax communications to be transmitted by satellite and wireless media. ACT’s technology allows developing countries to create new phone systems without the expense of laying cables.

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Suresh Nihilani, an early employee of ACT, left it last year to start his own company, Accelerated Networks in Westlake Village. Accelerated is developing a system that will allow communications service providers--companies such as Pacific Bell, WorldCom and others--to separate voice and data traffic so the traditional voice line doesn’t get overloaded and the company can charge more for valuable data traffic.

Nihilani, who came from Bombay, India, in the 1970s and took master’s degrees in electrical engineering and business administration from the Florida Institute of Technology, got $5.6 million in venture capital in June from New Enterprise Associates and U.S. Venture Partners, two Silicon Valley companies.

OneBox Networks, in Westlake Village, started in September 1996 to develop a hardware and software system that will set up a secure nationwide or worldwide computer network for corporate customers at much less expense than the $3,000-a-month lease of an individual high-bandwidth telephone line. OneBox, founded by Paul Singh, originally from London, received $3.5 million in venture capital this September from Amerscan, a venture firm backed by Norwegian oil money.

ComCore Semiconductor got its venture capital from Brentwood Associates of Los Angeles and Benchmark Partners of Silicon Valley.

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The venture firms see exploding markets for networking technologies. And they understand that even good companies will suffer reversals.

ACT Networks, for example, was riding high until a loss for one quarter, relating to costs of an acquisition, knocked its stock price from $37.50 a share to $10. “The business is still growing strongly and we have new products,” says Melvin Flowers, the chief financial officer. Xircom, a Thousand Oaks firm that makes devices to link portable computers with headquarters’ servers, suffered a quarterly earnings decline and saw its stock fall from more than $30 a share to $9.50.

So life in the fast lane is not restful. But it is promising.

The atmosphere in the Calabasas-Camarillo area today does recall the 1970s in Silicon Valley--offices with empty cubicles awaiting new employees, the emphasis on expansion. The California State University system is opening its next campus, Cal State Channel Islands, in the premises of the now closed Camarillo State Hospital next fall.

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The area’s good public schools attract venturesome employees to the area.

With a foundation in defense work and a future in the high-tech industry, the Calabasas-Camarillo area reflects a unique Southern California pattern. It would be great if the whole region enjoyed its promise.

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James Flanigan may be reached at (213) 237-7167 or by e-mail at jim.flanigan@latimes.com

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