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San Diego
Sunday, May 19, 2024
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CEO: Innovation a Key Mayoral Issue

The City of San Diego needs to step up its game if it wants the brightest graduates from UC San Diego and other universities to grow companies locally rather than flee to places such as Silicon Valley or Boston, where entrepreneurs have more resources at their fingertips.

That’s the message from the young and well-connected Philip Low, founder and CEO of La Jolla-based NeuroVigil Inc., a fast-growing neuroscience company that decodes brain waves with its lightweight iBrain headband.

Low — a 2007 Ph.D. graduate from The Salk Institute for Biological Studies who collaborates regularly with mentor Irwin Jacobs, co-founder of Qualcomm Inc. — launched a petition recently asking San Diego residents to vote for the mayoral candidate who puts forth the best plan for stimulating new businesses.

With primary elections set for June 5, Low hopes to elevate an issue that holds the best promise for job creation, he said.

“There’s a lot of pride in the great intellectual property in San Diego,” Low said. “We have one of the highest concentrations of scientists in the world. But in terms of actually translating that innovation into a company, there are roadblocks.”

He said it took him more than two years to get the intellectual property for NeuroVigil out of Salk Institute. And due to the dearth of venture capital, he initially funded his business on credit card debt and prizes from business plan competitions.

“It’s difficult for an ambitious entrepreneur to build a platform here,” he said.

Look East, North

Low suggests that San Diego adopt a program like Boston Business Hub, run by the City of Boston as a central access point for new companies to access services incentives. He also looks to San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee’s public efforts to support small businesses and make that city an innovation capital of the world.

“I see other parts of the country with far less talent than San Diego offering far more resources, and that saddens me,” Low said. “Our entrepreneurs time and again are being seduced by other cities. It’s time we have some real leadership around this issue.”

In his “Petition for a More Innovative and Entrepreneurial San Diego,” posted on his website and forwarded via email and Facebook to hundreds of connections, Low said San Diego has the potential to be the epicenter of emerging industries such as wireless health and alternative energy.

But “without the backing of our next mayor, many startups will be forced to move to more supportive regions,” the petition said. Backing could come in the form of tax breaks, financing assistance, office-space discounts, and special permitting policies, he said.

What’s the City’s Role?

Only one of the four major mayoral candidates — Carl DeMaio, Bonnie Dumanis, Bob Filner and Nathan Fletcher — responded to requests for comment on the petition, which received more than 200 online signatures, by press time.

A spokesman from Dumanis’ campaign said that the candidate has read the petition and is “very much interested in making San Diego the most business friendly environment in California.”

One local venture capital leader who agreed with the main premise of the petition questioned whether the city is the appropriate leader for such an effort.

“The reality for the winning mayoral candidate is that resources are really limited, especially with the state abolishing redevelopment agencies,” said David Titus, president of the nonprofit San Diego Venture Group and managing director of San Diego-based Windward Ventures, which focuses on tech startups.

Away With the ‘San Diego Model’

Low takes issue with what he sees as risk-averse culture permeating the local business scene. He calls it “The San Diego Model” — the idea that San Diego companies are better suited to license their innovations to larger companies at an early stage rather than growing into larger organizations that can make a greater economic impact.

“This is the city of Jonas Salk, of Ellen Scripps, of Irwin Jacobs, of Ernest Rady, people who have made some very bold bets that have benefited not only San Diego but the whole world,” he said. “I don’t see why, at a time of a recession, we should just give up. Some of the best companies were built during a recession.”

Part of the solution, he said, is revving up the venture capital industry in San Diego and getting individual investors excited about investing in startups.

Titus said the local venture community would like nothing more than to see San Diego startups mature into big independent companies rather than selling out early. But at the same time, he said, “This is never going to be a Silicon Valley.”

To that, Low would likely reply: Why not?

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