If Innovate Pasadena were a business, it would be a startup company.
With Pasadena the backdrop to some of the nation’s leading science, research and design institutions, such as Caltech, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the ArtCenter College of Design, it seems the only fitting description for the nonprofit advocating for the city’s cutting-edge reputation.
Though it just recently celebrated its five-year anniversary, Innovate Pasadena has made its mark in this short time, reaching 65,000 area members by creating a community platform to leverage the city into a nucleus of high-technology innovation and collaboration to support high-quality local job growth.
“We’ve been very successful in building this connective tissue between all these different assets,” said Innovate Pasadena President Beth Kuchar. “Pasadena is the innovation hub that no one ever really talks about. It is truly positioned as a hub, geographically we are a central point in the San Gabriel Valley, plus the rich resources and enthusiastic community we have here puts us as a central point in this innovation movement.”
Made up of nearly all volunteers (with only three paid staff positions), Innovate Pasadena has built a network of leaders in technology, science, design and entrepreneurial industries, all of whom support thousands of activities that foster innovation. The nonprofit’s newly unveiled website boasts a calendar of events, where members can post meet-up groups, discussions or resource exchanges at unique venues citywide. The goal is to create a diverse ecosystem to support technology businesses already thriving in Pasadena, including software development, aerospace, biotech, video gaming, health care, clean tech and engineering.
The nonprofit’s nimble platform has been able to accelerate collaboration across and within business, academia and the broader community in order to attract and retain companies, entrepreneurs, innovators and capital, said Innovate Pasadena co-founder and Chairman Mike Giardello.
“Pasadena has one of the most diverse economic ecosystems around — from hard science and technology to design to software, it has very diverse segments,” said Giardello, noting that the city benefits from not being in Silicon Valley or Silicon Beach, the tech-business corridor around Santa Monica. “We can offer something wholly unique.”
Created in 2013 by a group of city and business leaders looking to help solidify the local economy, Giardello said one of the first things it tackled was a lack of co-working space, the birthplace of many small startup companies.
Now, the city boasts of more than a handful, including CTRL Collective, We Work and Cross Campus, which Innovate Pasadena directly helped to recruit. A co-working space that offers top-line Internet, printing, kitchen and meeting rooms, can run as low as $300 per month.
“It can be a lonely road creating a startup company — there are a whole lot of people who sit on the sidelines who have potential and entrepreneurial spirit, but it’s helping to get across the line to take that plunge,” Giardello said. “One of the things you can do is to lower the barrier to that activity and provide an easy way for people to stick their toe in the water without risking too much. It also helps put you in a buzz community, you can meet people who can become potential cofounders or help you troubleshoot or diversify subject matters.”
As the home to 32 Nobel Prize winners, Pasadena ranks as having among the highest concentrations in the world. The city also lays claim to many inventions that make daily lives easier and drive businesses nationwide. The Mars Rover, DNA Sequencer, CMOS Semiconductor and the Richter scale, are all tied to Pasadena, and Caltech has equity in more than 80 companies that rely on technology developed in Pasadena, the nonprofit states on its website.
Yet despite these triumphs, Giardello recalls it was difficult back in the 1990s to attract management talent at technology companies, because potential hires were wary about relocating to an “out of network” city, a place too far away from other innovative industries. With half of all startups destined to fail, the job seekers worried about relocating to a city without a large safety net of other tech jobs at the ready.
Innovate Pasadena has helped rebrand that reputation and highlight the city’s technological clusters.
“People want to be in a place where they can find their next gig. By having strong clusters nearby it provides opportunities for people to move around. If one company is shutting down, those employees can get placed easily elsewhere and don’t even have to miss a beat,” Giardello noted. “It lowers the barrier — and whatever we can do to lower the barrier for people to take that entrepreneurial plunge is important.”
City Councilman Andy Wilson, a co-founder of the nonprofit and board member until this past year, recalled that Pasadena had been considered to be “ground zero” for the development of the commercial application of the Internet in the late ’90s. He worked around Southern California with a technology investment company for the next 10 years, but later came back to Pasadena to launch a software company.
But by that time, he said, while looking for collaborating businesses, “It struck me that the center of gravity had moved to Silicon Beach.” Wilson ended up making the drive continuously out to the Santa Monica area, and discovered that “not only was it a terrible commute” but that the companies were focused on different projects for unrelated sectors.
“I thought, ‘There has got to be people closer to home doing this,’ so I started reaching out here, seeing if there was interest in re-energizing Pasadena as a technological center,” Wilson recalled.
The group got a small grant from the city to put together a steering committee, under which about 20 business leaders began to brainstorm, and Innovate Pasadena was born.
“There always has been very thoughtful and committed innovation startups in Pasadena, it had just dropped below the radar for a while,” said Wilson, noting that Innovate Pasadena has helped turn that around with its publicity and networking.
“Startups are all about collaborations and relationship building — without that it can be very difficult to get off the ground,” he said. “By having a vibrant tech community you set up better conditions to create even more startups and those that are already here have a greater chance of being successful.”
Four-term mayor Bill Bogaard was at the helm for a good part of the city’s early efforts to strengthen its technological core. Bogaard is one of three co-chairs for Innovate Pasadena’s Leadership Circle, a donor support group made up of people committed “to the long-term well-being of Pasadena and have a particular interest in the strengthening of the local economy,” he described.
Bogaard recalled always seeing Pasadena as having all the strong elements to develop similarly to the likes of Silicon Beach. The arrival of companies such as technology incubator Idealab in 1996 helped solidify the opportunities, he noted. Idealab is considered to be the longest-running tech incubator in the nation, creating more than 150 companies with more than 45 IPOs and acquisitions, including those started in Pasadena such as Picasa, Citysearch, Overture, Evolution Robotics and Petsmart.com.
“I’m optimistic in Pasadena as a center for high-tech business development and believe Innovate Pasadena is being highly effective in demonstrating to the world that this is an area of great opportunity and resources to support high-tech development,” he said.
The arrival of venture capital groups such as Pasadena Angels is also helping to diversify the local economy, added Kuchar and Giardello, noting that a healthy economic system has a lot of diversity, both horizontally and vertically, including academia, investors, entrepreneurs, big and small companies, service providers and financial institutions.
This also helps keep talent local, Kuchar added.
“Having these top institutions involved means they have a vested interest in improving the local economic system and also have interest in retaining talent,” she noted. “It’s great to see participation from institutions, who help train the talent and now are fostering to keep them here; the businesses want to be involved to capture that talent as well.”
“Where the technologies go, the students go, the post-docs go,” added Giardello. “Last year, Caltech spun off 17 companies, and half of them stayed in this area. If you live in this community you care about the community.”
Going forward, Innovate Pasadena will continue to act as a tour guide (literally, Giardello has spent weekend hours showing prospective Caltech faculty around town), and offer its wealth of resources and database of connections for anyone interested in the innovation sector. The city’s thriving arts and culture scene, with three major museums, the world-renowned Huntington Library and the Pasadena Playhouse make the city an easy sell, Kuchar added.
“The momentum we have been seeing now, the spotlight, is starting to spread outward, and we’re seeing the strengthening of participation of other cities in the San Gabriel Valley,” she said. “This area as a whole, with Innovate Pasadena and Pasadena at the center of it is really going to be a contender for the next generation of new technology, invention and innovation.”