Cal Poly’s HotHouse is an innovation incubator

Mikkel Sandberg, Aaron Rivera, Joshua Holland, and Mark Paddon work on their start-up FireSwing in the SLO Hothouse. 

The SLO Hothouse is an incubator for start-up companies launched by Cal Poly students and alumni.
Mikkel Sandberg, Aaron Rivera, Joshua Holland, and Mark Paddon work on their start-up FireSwing in the SLO Hothouse. The SLO Hothouse is an incubator for start-up companies launched by Cal Poly students and alumni.

Editor’s note: This is another in an occasional look at technology entrepreneurs in San Luis Obispo County. This story focuses on an incubator program at Cal Poly designed to help startups.

With its eclectic mix of furniture — a bean bag here, an old sofa there — and cubicles filled with posters, white boards and other decor, the SLO HotHouse is a combination of Silicon Valley office and Cal Poly dorm room.

Beyond the physical space, once occupied by the city’s Public Works Department in downtown San Luis Obispo, it’s a place that encourages creativity and gives young entrepreneurs a shot at making their startup dreams come true.

“There’s so much talent at Cal Poly, and with Poly’s learn-by-doing mindset, it just lends itself so well to becoming entrepreneurial,” said Jessie Becker, SLO HotHouse coordinator. “When the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship began two and a half years ago, students were just waiting for something and someone to help.”

In its second year, the SLO HotHouse summer accelerator is a program — launched by the university’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship — that provides Cal Poly students and alumni $7,500 in funding to help start a company.

HotHouse funding comes from the center’s Founders’ Circle, comprised of local business owners, many of them Cal Poly alumni. The university does not invest in any of the companies.

In addition to funding, which allows participants to work full time on their company over the summer, aspiring business owners receive coaching and mentoring from local business and community members who often provide workshops on topics from finance to online marketing.

Ten potential businesses applied and were accepted into last summer’s pilot program. This summer, there were 24 applications, and the applicants were required to present their ideas along with a business model to a local panel of judges, none of whom has a financial stake in the summer HotHouse businesses, Becker said.

Seven companies were accepted into the HotHouse, and the companies that make the most progress by the end of the summer are given a chance to pitch at a HotHouse-only investor event. Three companies from last year’s group are still going strong and have space in the building as well, Becker said, noting that some of the businesses involved in the first-summer pilot have either moved on or split off into other ventures.

Following their summer at the HotHouse, companies continue to benefit from the university’s programs and services, including the Small Business Development Center for Innovation, an organization partially funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration and focused on boosting the number of technology-based businesses on the Central Coast.

In turn, Becker said the university hopes that these successful businesses will “give back with their time, donations or connections.”

The fledgling companies housed in the building, donated to the program by the city of San Luis Obispo, run the gamut from Autonomous Surveyor, a firm marketing a device to automate the construction layout process, to Genicell, which is developing a pharmaceutical testing device that could potentially replace animal testing.

One company, RepairTech Inc., has gained traction with its software, TechUSB, which helps computer repair technicians to diagnose and repair computers with a click of the mouse.

Another, FireSwing Studios, is well on its way to launch, creating game applications using 3-D animation and rendering techniques for the Android OS smartphone.

Mark Paddon, a member of the FireSwing Studios team, said they have already had more than 250 paid downloads of their app, which looks like “live wallpaper” with a 3-D background. Several hundred more people have used the free version the team released.

“The ultimate goal is to become self-sufficient and standing on our own,” said Paddon, who graduated last spring. “Working in the HotHouse in a collaborative environment with motivated people all hours of the day really helps to keep you going.”

Becker, who is hopeful the program will get funding to remain active year-round, said the SLO HotHouse is showing students that there is a path beyond getting a traditional job after graduation.

“We are opening a lot of students’ eyes to the possibility of entrepreneurship,” Becker said.