Letters to the Editor

SLO County’s post-Diablo future will be as bright as we want it to be

Mikkel Sandberg, Aaron Rivera, Joshua Holland, and Mark Paddon work on their startup in the SLO Hothouse in 2012.
Mikkel Sandberg, Aaron Rivera, Joshua Holland, and Mark Paddon work on their startup in the SLO Hothouse in 2012. The Tribune

Just days after the announcement that the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant will close in less than a decade (and bring disruption and change), I had a vision of San Luis Obispo County’s economic future.

I was celebrating the launch of another new Cal Poly Center of Innovation & Entrepreneurship incubator company working out of the SLO HotHouse. It was a new distiller, started by a crop science graduate with no business experience who in one year has gone from an idea and entrepreneurial drive to a company with employees, product and customers.

Yet, it wasn’t so much the company launch that drove my epiphany. It was seeing who else was at the event. There were:

▪  Three engineering students who developed a novel way of finding water leaks and who have both investor and corporate backing.

▪  A business student and engineer alumni who are commercializing a patented process for removing oil spills from water.

▪  Another company that is going to market with its natural and safer fire retardant chemical, and one that is improving the environment with a sustainable cup for coffee shops.

▪  A startup perfecting carbon fiber 3-D printing, and two bike-oriented companies.

All of these great new ventures were together in one place, right here, in San Luis Obispo. All of these young entrepreneurs are recent graduates of Cal Poly wanting to stay local. I thought to myself: “This is the future of our economy.”

It’s important to recognize that even though Cal Poly and this community are full of bright, creative, entrepreneurial people, growing sustainable businesses requires investment of money and time.

This is the kind of investment that Cal Poly made when it started the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (CIE) six years ago and supported the move to a new 15,000-square-foot entrepreneurial hub downtown. This is the kind of investment the city and county of San Luis Obispo have made in supporting the CIE’s SLO HotHouse. This is the kind of investment that business leaders in this community have made by offering their time, talent, and, in many cases, money to the programs supporting these young entrepreneurs.

We need to continue to invest, because we have to grow our own. Unlike communities such as Silicon Valley, Austin or Seattle, we won’t have the significant influence of an influx of entrepreneurs arriving to make their fortune here.

What we do have is a vast level of raw talent and a deep pool of mentors from the community and in the Cal Poly alumni base.

The progress over the past six years has been phenomenal. Each of the companies mentioned above is less than 3 years old; some have existed only one year.

Continuing this progress won’t be easy. There is still a lack of early-stage investment capital in this community — the kind needed to get these companies past their infancy and allow them to tap national sources of funding.

The local talent pool also needs to deepen, and more seasoned folks need to join these startups as advisers and even leaders. Building support systems for first-time entrepreneurs isn’t cheap either. It will require continued investment of money and time. There will be failures on this long road.

But I glimpsed the future of our local economy the other night, and I urge the entire community to join us in this effort to make it a reality.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to stop by the SLO HotHouse and see all the amazing things going on. CIE is now accepting community-based startups into the incubator program, and there is co-working space available. We need the community’s help in attracting and supporting its vibrant talent and promising innovators in an effort to build a unique and passionate startup culture in San Luis Obispo.

Jonathan York is co-founder and faculty director of the Cal Poly Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship.