Fostering Entrepreneurial Spirit in Southern California
n the hills that house the University of California, Irvine’s University Research Park sits a building distinguishable from its neighbors only by the bright green “V” emblazoned on the façade. But what lies within is far from ordinary. Inside, innovation thrives.
This is The Vine, a community for tech entrepreneurs to grow their research into viable businesses. Launched in 2015 and operated by The Irvine Company,® The Vine’s San Diego and Irvine locations include three entities: Real Office Centers, EvoNexus and ReadyNow suites. Ninety startups and small businesses in sectors including energy and ed-tech currently call The Vine their interim home.
“Our main focus in creating this space is to stimulate the local economy,” said Zack Martin, community manager for The Vine OC. “Entrepreneurs and small businesses are key components, and The Vine aims to facilitate that with its three-step process.”
“Imagine a young person leaving a $200,000-a-year job at Broadcom for a venture offering no pay, no benefits and no guarantees. All they have is stock in their own company. They risk it all,” said Rory Moore, CEO of EvoNexus, an Irvine Company partner that incubates startups, including many referred through The Vine. “The more quickly we can help launch that company, the better the chances that the business will stay the course. That’s what motivates me.”
This collaboration, along with exposure and resources, are the things a startup needs most, said Garrett Ruhland, founder and CEO of Modern AlkaMe, a developer of cognitive enhancer supplements (nootropics) that signed on as one of the first tenants in The Vine’s Real Office Center space.
“Sharing startup-friendly office space with an incubator like EvoNexus fosters innovation and collaboration not seen elsewhere in Orange County,” Ruhland said. “Additionally, UCI’s proximity supplies a fountain of talent that can be leveraged for our company’s success.”
The benefits go beyond the physical spaces. Research and technology partnerships like the one between The Vine and UCI’s Applied Innovation center, The Cove, allow entrepreneurs to develop the science behind their product and tap into the expertise of premier researchers. In May, The Vine introduced another valuable offshoot when it launched a pitch competition to give local entrepreneurs exposure to a larger network of investors and partners.
“At each event, more than 80 attendees listen to pitches from about 12 startups. Prizes with a total value of over $7,500 are awarded to the top five,” said Martin. “The event is really beginning to gain traction.”
Perhaps most valuable, at least financially, for these entrepreneurs is The Vine’s third entity. The pro bono incubator, EvoNexus, accepts a limited number of seed-stage startups into two annual cohorts. Through this program, the startups receive free rent and retain 100 percent of their equity during the commercialization phase. Since inception, EvoNexus has provided Southern California startups with over $1.1 billion in seed funding.
A startup-friendly space is also critical for entrepreneurs looking to make a positive impact on society. “Edico Genome is reducing the time it takes to sequence a gene from many days to a matter of hours,” said Moore of one of the companies that incubated at EvoNexus. On April 25, the startup set the Guinness World Record for the fastest genomic diagnosis, saving the life of a newborn when the team quickly and accurately charted the best approach to treating the infant’s condition.
“This is the type of innovation that shapes the direction of new science, and it’s one reason The Irvine Company® believes in EvoNexus,” said Moore. “We’re looking for companies that will move the needle. We’re looking for the next Broadcom, the next Edwards Lifesciences.”
Other startups find a niche at The Vine independent of the incubator component. For Traction Labs, which helps young companies get past the accelerator phase by offering commercialization services, The Vine OC community provides them with a target audience.
“We face the same challenges as other startups: getting noticed, marketing, funding and building our community,” said Ravi Kondagunta, founder of Traction Labs. “Finding like-minded folks that want to use our services is still the biggest challenge.”
“The Vine is an excellent example of how we stay in sync with the high-tech industry,” said Steve Case, executive vice president of Irvine Company Office Properties. “In partnership with EvoNexus, The Vine plants the seeds of innovation for cutting-edge companies to grow into tomorrow’s leaders.”
While some of these startups may transition into larger Irvine Company office space as they grow, there are no strings attached and no requirements to remain in the network. The Vine seeks simply to drive companies like Edico Genome, Modern AlkaMe and Traction Labs to connect, collaborate and contribute new ideas to the marketplace. “The Vine was designed to accelerate the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Martin said, “and I watch this vision come to life every day. It couldn’t be more inspiring.”