When you think of high technology and innovation areas, the Silicon Valley of Northern California usually comes to mind. You may even think of "Silicon Beach," the West Los Angeles locale where companies like SnapChat and Hulu are based. But the Inland Empire, particularly Riverside County, is quickly developing into a budding technology hotbed with exciting startup companies on the rise.
Riverside County features many of the key components that make for a thriving technology entrepreneurial ecosystem— talent, access to capital, resources, and an abundance of support networks, including local government and universities. Without a doubt, the Inland Empire is a growing tech hub and an area to watch.
Biz2Credit ranked Riverside/San Bernardino number 10 on its list of the Top 25 Cities for Small Business in 2017.
According to Employment Development Department data from 2012 through 2017, the Inland Empire added 289,091 jobs. From 2017 to 2022, total employment in Riverside County will grow at an annual average rate of 1.5 percent as stated in a report from California’s Department of Transportation.
"I see Riverside County as the Boulder of California," said Taj Ahmad Elridge, executive director of the ExCITE Accelerator at UC Riverside. "Techstars was founded and based in Boulder, Colorado and there are many similarities between Riverside and Boulder. Both have a small town feel with strong technology development taking place."
While Elridge does not see Riverside as the next Silicon Valley—mainly because it’s difficult to replicate what Silicon Valley has built—he believes the Inland Empire has huge opportunities.
"In terms of technology, Riverside County has three key areas: clean tech, AgTech and digital health. I think logistics tech is also going to be big. This region has an opportunity to really impact the area with technology," said Elridge.
The ExCITE startup accelerator program he runs at UCR is designed to help entrepreneurs take advantage of the opportunities in the region by fostering their ideas and cultivating their growth. ExCITE looks for companies that already have a product and one or two customers. Over six months, the program offers mentorship, several workshops and tries to help the entrepreneurs get funding by introducing them to venture capitalists.
The program has seen several successes including zyBooks, a company co-founded by UCR professor Frank Vahid and former UC Davis professor Smita Bakshi. zyBooks creates interactive digital textbooks focusing on STEM. Initially the company had a hard time attracting investors but since being an ExCITE resident, the company secured $4 Million in funding.
The availability and access to funding in Riverside County also makes the region an attractive location for entrepreneurs to start and grow businesses.
In June 2017, UCR created the Highlander Venture Fund (HVF), the first regional early stage venture capital fund in Riverside County. This $10 Million fund includes investments from the UCR Foundation and well-known Sand Hill Road firm, Vertical Venture Partners.
HVF made its first investment earlier this year to NanoCellect Biomedical Inc., a company that develops microfluidic cell sorting technologies. NanoCellect was founded by a UCR alumni, Jose Morachis.
The venture fund’s second investment, in the amount of $50,000, was made in February to Sensorygen, a startup developing a sweet selling mosquito repellent.
"We are excited about the Highlander Venture Fund, but we recognize that it can’t do everything for everybody, so we also are working hard to identify additional sources of potential funding that we can introduce people to so we can have a roster of funding sources to draw from," said Mark Leibowitz, Interim Director of UCR’s Entrepreneurial Proof of Concept and Innovation Center (EPIC).
EPIC was created to provide valuable resources to students, faculty and entrepreneurs in the community.
"With EPIC we’re striving to put access to funding, coaching and mentoring, education and team building under a single umbrella," said Leibowitz. "We have a series of different educational programs and the cornerstone of the programs is National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (i-Corps)."
The university was awarded a $500,000 grant to provide in-house commercialization training to UCR faculty, students and staff.
The i-Corps program is focused on senior graduate students or post doctorate fellows who are working with faculty members on technology. The program pairs the faculty members and fellows with a mentor from industry and has them go through a 7-week program to explore their potential market or application of their technology.
"i-Corps uses the Lean Launchpad approach and the point is to go out and talk to customers, users, purchasers, competition and all stakeholders involved in the business that the team proposes to work in and to validate the product."
UCR has seen the value and validation of several products. In fact, the university’s Research and Economic Development office awarded eight proof of concept grants to faculty and researchers in 2017. Among them was Chan Seung Park who was working on an inexpensive sensor to measure the content of gas coming into water heaters and other gas-powered devices. Park won a $45,000 grant to build his prototype. That prototype helped him win a $1.5 million grant from California Energy Commission to develop a device to reduce natural gas consumption in breweries.
This is just one of many examples of creative and innovative entrepreneurship in the Inland Empire. It is this innovation that has sparked the support of local businesses.
Vocademy in Riverside is an education-focused makerspace that provides hands- on vocational training. The company is said to provide tools you would want in your own dream garage, workshop, or inventor’s lab and makes these tools accessible to individuals, schools, and companies in the community who want to learn, build, create, and become makers.
Headquartered in Corona, AppCore Labs is one of the rising startups that has made its mark in region. Since its inception, Founder and President Chris Hernandez has partnered with the local city and the regional stakeholders to create tech jobs and develop products such as Ezer and Rival (Rival was a finalist of the recent Riverside Fast Pitch competition).
AppCore Labs also launched Tech O Tuesday, a networking mixer event that gathers technology people in the area once a month to get updates on what is happening locally and make new connections.
"Since I relocated from New York, I quickly realized that there was a small tech scene here and I wanted to build on that momentum."
Tech O Tuesday has been quite successful in fostering relationship building and technology growth in the area.
"The Tech O Tuesday mixer has been a great way to embrace our tech community in Corona," said Kimberly Davidson, Economic Development Manager for the City of Corona. "City of Corona Economic Development appreciates the partnership we’ve had with App Core Labs. We appreciate them helping to put on the events and provide information and direction. These partnerships with private and public companies help us to identify the technology folks in our area and ways to support them."
Unique to the Riverside region and its entrepreneurial technology ecosystem is the level of support and the tight collaboration among the region’s universities, cities and the county.
"We have a lot of residents that have to commute to high tech jobs. The challenge has always been how to keep them here and not lose them to other communities," said Davidson. "But Riverside County has been growing for the last few years and I think people come seeking quieter areas, great schools and a slower pace. We are encouraging companies to build and grow here, and we want entrepreneurs to build businesses of their own here."
This is part of the premise behind Riverside County’s month-long of festivities known as Innovation Month.
"A big reason we created Innovation Month is making a push to identify tech companies doing business in Riverside county and showcasing what the county has to offer," said Davidson.
Originally started in September of 2016 by the City of Corona and Riverside Economic Development Agency, the month of April is now Innovation Month. The entire month is dedicated to bringing awareness to innovation and entrepreneurship in Riverside County. Spearheaded by the Riverside County Economic Development Agency, Innovation Month encompasses all 28 cities in the county. Entrepreneurial-focused events and workshops are held at different locations in the region throughout the month.
"There are workshops on how to start a company, how to get funded, pitch competitions, all to foster an innovation ecosystem in Riverside county and bring attention to innovation and technology we already have here."
Note: This article could also include a sidebar or diagram of all the different tech centers of the various Riverside County cities.