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Incubating Ventura

By   /   Friday, December 19th, 2008  /   Comments Off on Incubating Ventura

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If a new high-tech incubator in downtown Ventura hatches some ingenious companies, the city may by poised to receive both national attention and increased sales tax revenue.

In January, the city is opening up 30,000 square feet of space for the county’s first technology incubator, officially named the Ventura Ventures Technology Center. Start-ups across the region are being offered deeply discounted workstations — at $300 a month — as well as “flexible” office spaces.

“We went with the flexible space concept so you could have a lot of like-minded companies interact with each other,” said Alex Schneider, associate planner in the city of Ventura’s economic development division. “As they outgrow the office suite, they can plant new employees in the flexible space. It’s designed to be flexible for companies to grow as they get funded.”

The idea for the incubator space came after the city bought a five-story building downtown. The first two floors were used to expand the city hall’s offices, but “we had this 30,000 square feet of vacant space on the top three floors,” Schneider said.

He said the space will mainly be set aside for software and Web application companies. One of the first tenants to sign up was Alan Daniels, who is in the process of founding Ventura Energy Systems. Daniels and two others have been using their own money for the past four months to develop software to track how much electricity homes and business use on a “much finer scale” than a monthly bill.

Whether it’s circuit by circuit or room by room, Daniels’ software will give customers an idea of where they can cut back energy usage. But Daniels said his venture is outgrowing his home office space.

“We’re really looking forward to collaborating with other entrepreneurs,” Daniels said. “We really appreciate how nice a space the city has created so far. We think it’s going to be very comfortable to work there.”

The city is trying to offer the region’s technology companies more than just a functional workspace – it is also hoping to make available other services, such as legal assistance, to the fledgling start-ups.

The city is partnering up with the Ventura Chamber of Commerce, and the two are recruiting professional services partners at “negotiated group rates” for those roosting in the incubator. “It’s about building an entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Scheider said.

One part of that ecosystem will be Rao Machiraju, a member of the incubator’s advisory board. A longtime Ventura resident, Machiraju was a principal scientist at Apple Computer. After that he struck out on his own and founded reQall, a spinout from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that uses smart phones as a memory helper.

Machiraju has a team of about 40 among locations in India, Hong Kong and the U.S. and has raised about $4.5 million in funding. Though he hopes to install a small team at the Ventura incubator, his focus will be guiding companies as they hire and seek funding.

“I would like to see an incredible company come out of Ventura, something on the order of Google,” Machiraju said. “I believe the quality of life is wonderful – it’s a great place to think.”

Funding for the incubator project emerged from the city’s Economic Development Fund. While $1.6 million is set aside for direct investment into Ventura-based companies, $400,000 was earmarked for the incubator. The money was mainly used to buy furniture and office equipment “and make it a fun, collaborative space for high-tech start-ups,” Schneider said.

Concerned that it might be relegated to serving as a bedroom community for emerging technology hubs along Highway 101 in the Conejo Valley and the Carpinteria-Santa Barbara-Goleta corridor, the city of Ventura has been thirsting to get fresh tech companies of its own.

Schneider said Ventura is one of many cities looking to “diversify their economy.” As more technology companies contact him with interest in renting workspace, Ventura could become a launching point for high-tech companies in the region, claiming its own piece of turf along the Highway 101 corridor.

“What I’ve been most impressed by are the talent and people coming out of the woodwork since we started this,” Schneider said.


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