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Tech companies look to grow in new Irvine incubator

Paul Self and Steve Goold, co-founders of Buildz.com, in their new Irvine tech incubator work space on Friday, January 2.
(SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot)

Inside an unassuming beige office building next to the UC Irvine campus, eight entrepreneurs aim to grow fledgling companies in a new tech business hub.

The Irvine work space offers the entrepreneurs free rent, opportunities to collaborate, educational events and access to mentors and investors through a venture run by Commnexus, a nonprofit that nurtures start-ups, in partnership with the Irvine Co.

“The Vine,” as the two-story, 63,500-square-foot space on California Avenue is called, is where the companies hope to flourish.

The building is part of a 185-acre office campus that is home to companies including Cisco Systems, chipmakers Semtech and Skyworks Solutions, and UCI’s Institute for Innovation.

Eight entrepreneurs moved into The Vine last week, having been chosen from a field of 40 vying for spots in a competition held in November. An additional six to 12 will be selected in a competition that begins Jan. 28.

Michele Yoshioka, director of programs and operations for San Diego-based CommNexus, said two rounds of competition are planned annually.

The backers’ ultimate aim is to boost the local economy with more homegrown businesses, explained Yoshioka.

Start-ups that outgrow the 10,000-square-foot “incubator” graduate into 22,000 square feet of co-working space or 32,000 square feet of move-in ready offices in the same building. They would then pay rent.

CommNexus brought the concept to Irvine after similar tech hubs in downtown San Diego and near UC San Diego proved successful, Yoshioka explained.

“It was a natural shift,” she said. “There’s a lot of tech talent in Orange County and in the local universities.”

CommNexus doesn’t take an equity stake or charge fees, which many tech incubators do, Yoshioka explained.

The Vine’s proximity to UCI appealed to Laguna Beach entrepreneur Richard Henson, whose company, PhageTech, was one of the eight chosen.

Henson, the former CEO of Irvine’s Source Scientific LLC, said he is building PhageTech around a diagnostic testing technology licensed from two UCI researchers. If successful, he said the company’s diagnostic test would save time and money by eliminating the need for a lab. Instead, an analysis could be performed in a clinic or other setting — a boon for developing countries that lack laboratories or trained medical staff.

Henson hopes to raise $1.5 million in the next 90 days for a clinical trial at UCI Medical Center. Running his company out of The Vine, he said, will save him more than money for office space.

“I can find a desk and a place to work any place,” Henson said. “This is right across the street from the university. I can have my business office next to the university where technology work is being done.”

Like many tech incubators, CommNexus enlists high-profile business leaders to act as mentors.

The former CEO of Buy.com, Greg Hawkins, is mentoring entrepreneur Paul Self. Self moved into The Vine earlier this week.

Self co-founded Buildz in 2013 after more than two decades in high-end home electronics. The 52-year-old entrepreneur describes Buildz’s product as Amazon.com, SalesForce.com and PayPal rolled into one. The company’s app will allow contractors to collaborate with customers and suppliers and perform various business tasks, such as scheduling and estimating.

Self said CommNexus expects him to launch the new app and acquire paying customers in four months.

To Self, what’s playing out in Irvine is a nascent version of established regional high-tech communities, such as Silicon Beach in Santa Monica, and Silicon Valley.

“There’s no B.S. here,” Self said. “I’m stepping into a group of really smart folks who will either chew me up or help me succeed.”


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