Cal Poly Technology Park links business with learning

Park provides space for tech companies and work experience for students

jlynem@thetribunenews.comSeptember 28, 2013 

They are faculty-led technology startups, manufacturers and developers of social-
networking communities for large corporations. Still more offer biotechnology consulting, help with digging through genealogical data, and tools to advance scientific exploration of Earth and space.

All of these companies call the Cal Poly Technology Park home. Since its opening in 2010,
the on-campus park at Mt. Bishop Road has become a hub of activity for businesses that are engaged in cutting-edge research and development, and that provide hands-on learning and employment opportunities for students, graduates and local entrepreneurs. 

With the nearly 20,000 square feet of available space almost fully occupied, the California Central Coast Research Partnership (C3RP) is excited about the success of the venture, and the potential to build on what it has started.

The goal of the tech park, a joint effort between the university and C3RP, is to serve as a link between Cal Poly and private business and industry, providing space for small businesses and work experience for many of the university’s undergraduates and graduates.

The park is a project of the university’s office of research and economic development and is managed by the Cal Poly Corporation, which runs operations such as the
bookstore and campus dining.

It cost about $7.5 million to build and was funded through a combination of loans, private sources and a $1.8 million donation from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Construction of the 25,000-square-foot structure is the first of two phases. The second calls for another 25,000-square-foot building to house additional companies.

While Jim Dunning, program manager for the tech park, said there’s not a strong push to expand right now, he said there is more demand from private companies than supply.

“It was a little bit of a risk at the time,” Dunning said. “But I think that we’ve been able to demonstrate that we can fill up a 25,000-square-foot building with a nice mix of tenants, and we can start planning for the future.”

While any capital project must go through the university master plan process, Bradford Anderson, interim vice president for research and economic development, said it’s possible that something like the tech park could be replicated elsewhere on campus, either through the use of existing buildings or with new construction.

“The tech park, which is partly funded by the U.S. Economic Development Authority, was a unique circumstance, but there are certainly other opportunities on campus,” Anderson said. “Again, we would have to go through a campus process to consider whether there could be an option of an additional tech park or an expansion of the tech park.”

The university’s president, Jeffrey Armstrong, has set a clear vision for supporting Cal Poly’s learn-by-doing philosophy as well as building public-private partnerships, Anderson said.

One of the ideas behind the tech park was to serve as a space for start-ups and other small firms that would eventually make their way from the campus into the local commercial world, providing head-of-household jobs.

The tech park fits in well with Armstrong’s priorities, Anderson said.

“Offering up opportunities for students to have experiential education is extremely important … whether that occurs at the tech park or a future development that will be a priority,” he said. “The second is public and private partnerships. He wants to see an opportunity for faculty and students to address real-world problems and apply research that is meaningful and helps the greater community and business community.”

So far, 12 companies are operating out of the tech park, including Applied Technologies Associates/Scientific Drilling — the park’s first tenant — and EADS, the parent company for Airbus, which opened a satellite research-and-development office on campus last year, Dunning said.

The park is also home to Couto Solutions, a San Luis Obispo software development firm, the satellite offices for Tyvak, an Irvine-based company that provides Nano-Satellite and CubeSat space vehicle products and services for government and commercial customers, and Platinum Performance, a Buellton-based manufacturer of supplements for horses, dogs and other companion animals.

The park, which is supported by sublease income, works closely with various colleges on campus and community organizations such as the Economic Vitality Corp. of San Luis Obispo County, San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce and Softec. The park employs more than 75 full-time and part-time employees and a combination of paid students, faculty and business owners.

“It’s the quality of our students at Cal Poly that is a really big draw,” Dunning said. “The tenants know there’s a big pool of high-quality students here. And if you look at the composition of tenants, they are very diverse, and that’s just a reflection of what Cal Poly is and everything we have to offer.”

At Software Inventions, another of the park’s tenants, it’s about building and helping to manage teams of the university’s top computer science students.

“Our goal is to provide better professional experience for Poly students than can be obtained from a summer-only internship,” said Clinton Staley, CEO of the company, which develops math and science educational software. “Our student developer teams work year-round on projects for various outside companies that contract with us, and for our own internal products relating to advanced educational software.”

Staley added: “Students work full time in summer and part time during the school year while at Poly so they can stay involved professionally without delaying their studies.

The ability to tap into the university’s pool of students was a key reason Stephen Lakowske decided to operate his company at the tech park.

Lakowske, an engineer who sold SimAuthor, a previous company he started in Boulder, Colo., founded Mentor eData, a self-funded technology firm that works to improve driver safety and performance. He started the venture in Colorado before relocating to the Central Coast in 2011.

“We realized that Poly represented a wealth of skill from faculty, graduates and undergraduates,” said Lakowske, who employs 10 people, mostly Cal Poly students and graduates.

As the company becomes more successful, Lakowske intends to give grants to some of the university’s departments. The firm has already helped several students to complete their senior projects.

The company is not yet profitable, but Lakowske is confident it will grow thanks in part to the potential for an increase in business from the U.S. military, which uses its technology as a training tool. He is looking forward to playing a larger role in boosting the local economy by supplying more head-of-household jobs.

“Everybody, especially computer-literate folks, scatter to Silicon Valley or L.A. after they get their degrees because that’s where they can get the big money,” he said. “There aren’t an abundance of jobs in this area. But one of the things we offer is some interesting work, leading-edge work, in a beautiful place.”

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