On a recent evening, a crowd of entrepreneurs, investors and tech consultants gathered at an office building near UC Irvine, drinking Heineken, playing pingpong and watching the San Diego Chargers take an early lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But the socializing was just background for the main event: an emerging effort to connect Orange County entrepreneurs and financiers in building a local technology sector more like those in Silicon Valley and L.A.'s Silicon Beach.
Salar Soroori, a 36-year-old entrepreneur, stepped in front of a wall of televisions and pitched his company, Datavia Systems. It’s a new entrant in the burgeoning field of “big data,” the mining of business intelligence from massive databases.
After his presentation, he closed with a simple request: that he might chat with some of the business leaders, investors and tech executives. A short while later, Soroori walked up to the chief financial officer of a $6.5-billion company and talked up his venture.
So went the Monday Night Football pitch party at the Cove, a new UCI-backed venture that aims to help budding entrepreneurs both in and outside the university flourish locally — and not feel the need to move to the rival tech clusters in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Our end goal is to create hundreds of companies and thousands of jobs. We want to be the spark,” said Richard Sudek, an angel investor and executive director of UCI’s Applied Innovation institute.
“If you walk into a Silicon Valley Starbucks, there is probably 15 entrepreneurs and five VCs and five angels,” he said. “Well, in Orange County, where is that?”
Supported by a $5-million endowment from the Beall Family Foundation, a Newport Beach philanthropy that’s given heavily to UCI, the institute held a grand opening for the Cove this month.
The 31,000-square-foot space features an incubator for entrepreneurs just starting businesses and three accelerators to help them grow — all with the help of a network of nearly 400 mentors. Start-up funding is available from seven investment firms that maintain offices. Business advisory firms offer free help, financed by the Small Business Administration, and there’s the university’s Applied Innovation institute, which focuses on commercializing technologies coming out of UCI.
The event space itself could be the most important element of the effort, a place for the Orange County tech industry to gather informally and make connections that could launch new ventures. Its giant flat screens are spread along three walls. A game room with foosball and air hockey provides another venue for the kind of off-chance encounters that often occur more easily in places such as Silicon Valley or Silicon Beach — the stretch of Santa Monica, Venice and Playa Vista where tech companies are clustered.
“People want to do business with people they like and people they trust,” said David Friedman, a mentor at the Cove and a member of Tech Coast Angels, a Southern California angel investor group that has an office at the Cove.
Orange County has long had an established tech industry, particularly in the healthcare and hardware sectors. But the county is known less for start-ups than for old-line companies such as Microsemi Corp, Western Digital Corp. and Edwards Lifesciences Corp. that employ thousands and are valued at billions of dollars.
Still, there’s a significant start-up community. Through the third quarter of this year, venture capitalists pumped $722 million into Orange County companies, up from $448 million a year earlier. But that’s less than the $1 billion Silicon Beach received and just a fraction of Silicon Valley’s $23 billion, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Some hot companies include cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike and healthcare billing software firm Kareo, which ranked first and second in third-quarter venture funding with $100 million and $55 million, respectively, according to a separate report from PitchBook.
Even so, start-ups, events and investors are still scattered across the suburban county, which experts said has led some young companies to believe they must head elsewhere to take their business to the next level. That includes drone software firm Airware, which decamped for San Francisco less than two years ago.
“We are still trying to search for each other,” Ray Chan, managing director of Newport Beach venture fund K5 Ventures, said of the local tech community.
The Cove joins a similar, but less comprehensive effort called the Vine, also in University Research Park, a more than decade-old development by the Irvine Co. and the university that has sought to cluster high-tech firms just off campus.
Inside the Vine, there are co-working spaces and the nonprofit EvoNexus incubator, which started in San Diego and opened in Irvine last year. EvoNexus sees an opportunity across the parking lot as well; it holds events at the Cove and Sudek helps select its class of start-ups.
“We all have the same mission: help support small business and make Orange County a thriving place to work and live,” said Carolyn Liikala, portfolio manager at EvoNexus Irvine.
Soroori, the chief executive of Datavia, said the Cove’s pitch party gave him a chance to get in touch with potential clients once he’s ready to commercialize his software and hardware company, founded this year. Datavia aims to sell hardware that can process massive amounts of data faster and cheaper than traditional computers, with applications in industries as diverse as medical imaging and refining.
“Just in a matter of five minutes, I had three different leads,” he said.
Nicolas Mangano said he’s also found help at the Cove.
The entrepreneur founded SketchTogether in 2013 with $20,000 he earned through internships and a small stipend from his doctorate program. The start-up sells software that enables colleagues to remotely scribble on a shared digital whiteboard, no matter where they are.
The 30-year-old UCI alumnus, who works out of shared workspace at the Cove, has received mentoring from an entrepreneur on how to pitch prospective clients and from a former chief executive who got SketchTogether’s financials in order. Then there’s the other start-ups who stream through for events, allowing Mangano to learn from their successes and failures.
“This is a springboard,” he said.