The annual Women in Technology dinner and CEO Roundtables. Cal Poly’s Technology Park and Student Robotics Expos.
These all have a common thread: Softec.
For the past 20 years, the nonprofit organization has helped to bring local businesses, individuals and educational institutions together to make the Central Coast a “thriving hub of innovation,” according to Softec.
The organization, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with an event at Cal Poly’s Technology Park, started in 1994 as an informal, tight-knit group of San Luis Obispo County entrepreneurs and business leaders who saw the potential of the Central Coast as a center for technology and innovation, said Eric Schwefler, one of the original members and a partner in Caliber Accounting Group.
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In the early days, the group, which met at what had been the 1865 restaurant in San Luis Obispo, would network, bring in guest speakers and discuss “a variety of issues facing tech companies,” which included everything from dealing with employees to providing support for startup companies, Schwefler said.
A primary focus was resource sharing, Schwefler said. And one of the first things Softec did was to sign an agreement with a research lab at Point Mugu in Southern California that would give Softec members access to the military lab’s resources. The lab allowed for high-pressure testing of devices that would work in aircraft at high altitudes.
Back then, as now, several local companies were involved in aerospace or made products intended to work in those environments, said Schwefler. He said he was unsure of how many local firms actually used the lab in its early days.
The organization also had liaisons in Ventura with the Center for International Trade Development, a state office that promotes the state’s international trade and competitiveness, assists exporters and importers, and advances economic and job growth.
When the group formed as an official nonprofit in 1996, Softec was well on its way to becoming the premier organization for the local tech industry. It launched an annual technology symposium, which recognized local technology innovation, among other things. That evolved into TechPitch, an annual event now organized by the SLO HotHouse, in which applicants in technology-related businesses compete for the chance to win cash and business consulting services.
Many Softec leaders were instrumental in getting Cal Poly’s Technology Park established and were early supporters of the SLO HotHouse — a collaborative project with Cal Poly, the city of San Luis Obispo and local business community that helps get startups off the ground, according to Joshua Erdman, president of Softec and a senior consultant with TekTegrity Inc.
Softec has evolved over the years, adjusting and adapting to the changing times, business environment and needs of its members, Erdman said. For instance, when attendance at its monthly dinners began to wane several years ago, Softec introduced Tech Brew, a monthly event at a local restaurant that features a short, informative “TED-like talk” on a technology topic of interest.
Softec’s open houses, an inside look at some of the county’s tech firms, organizations and facilities, have been a huge hit as well, Erdman said — noting that its tour on June 22 of the San Luis Obispo County Airport and air traffic control tower is a “rare opportunity that not many people get to see.”
However, one of Softec’s greatest successes has been its Women in Technology Interest Group, which hosts three monthly events — a breakfast, lunch and happy hour — and has taken the reins of the annual Women in Technology Dinner.
“Women in business are doing a lot, but the problem has been having an opportunity to witness and recognize that,” said Erdman. He said he hopes the interest and recognition of women in technology and leadership positions continues to grow.
Other key accomplishments include its collaboration with PG&E, which has hosted Softec tours of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant and has been “very supportive of high school robotics,” he said. Softec has given more than $30,000 in grants to local high school robotics, and Erdman said its next big push is to encourage the state to recognize robotics as a sport.
As the local tech industry grows, Softec officials said they have plans to play an integral role in helping young people, especially Cal Poly graduates, to remain in the area.
What it is: A software and technology trade association serving members from Paso Robles to Lompoc.
Web address: www.softec.org
Founders: Henry Hernandez, Greg Biggers, Eric Schwefler, Kim Mistretta
Leadership: Joshua Erdman, president
Board members/officers: 14
Members: More than 2,000