Wednesday, April 4, 2018
PHOTO BY BENNETT LACY
During an early Spring night at Qualcomm’s corporate headquarters, San Diego’s startup scene was humming. Hundreds of innovators and influencers turned out to see the latest from local tech incubator EvoNexus. New products range from software that streamlines the human resources onboarding process, a peer-to-peer international currency transfer service and an all-encompassing esports platform.
“Think of us as kind of a social network for video games,” said Justin Weisberg, the co-founder and CEO of Evasyst. “We’re a social chat marketplace app where you can find people to play with, spectate and buy and sell goods.”
These young companies are hoping to develop products that will be game changers in their industries. The nonprofit EvoNexus, launched in 2010 by Peregrine Semiconductor co-founder Rory Moore, fosters their development by matching them with established mentors.
“I had one of my mentors at Rice University tell me this is gladiator fights,” said Ashak Kamal, executive director of local investment firm Tech Coast Angels. “You gotta get up there. You gotta move the crowd. You gotta touch the crowd.”
EvoNexus is one example of San Diego’s growing reputation as a leader in the innovation economy. A recent ranking by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce put San Diego among the top five startup cities, alongside Austin, Philadelphia, the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston.
“The bay area didn’t need an EvoNexus. We did in San Diego,” Moore said at the EvoNexus headquarters in University City. The space is provided rent free by The Irvine Company, one of America’s top real estate developers. Moore said the goal of EvoNexus is to see one of these startups become the next Qualcomm, ViaSat or Peregrine, and ultimately an anchor of San Diego’s economy, not just the startup scene.
“We have some today on this floor that have that potential,” Moore said. “In fact, that is the goal I’ve given to the board of directors — that EvoNexus will launch a company in our incubator that eventually becomes a public company.”
Moore said more than 1,700 companies have applied for a spot at EvoNexus, with only 10 percent making the cut. One of those companies is WaterPigeon, winner of last year’s Demo Day event. WaterPigeon’s patented technology promises a more efficient way for municipalities to automate water meters. CEO and co-founder Clay Melugin said he is now negotiating WaterPigeon’s first contracts and plans to pay the success forward.
“We donate shares of our company back to EvoNexus even though we don’t have to,” Malugin said. “We give it back because we want this to become a permanent fixture of San Diego.”
Some of the startups involved in EvoNexus specifically seek out San Diego as a place to grow. According to the most recent Innovation Report by Connect, a local firm that tracks the San Diego startup scene, nearly 500 new companies launched in 2016. Software and life sciences were the two largest fields. Chorom Pak, the co-founder and CEO of Lynx Biosciences, started the company while earning her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. She saw San Diego as a good fit.
“At a certain point we realized for us to accelerate our growth we would need to move to an area that would be more biotech focused,” Pak said.
Of all the pitches made at the Spring Demo Day event, Pak’s proved to be the most effective. LynxBiosciences, which is developing technology that will allow doctors to better chart a personalized treatment for blood cancers, finished in first place in an audience poll. Pak, who arrived at EvoNexus in January, is already looking forward to the next challenge.
“Our goal is now to get funded,” Pak said. “We need to raise our seed rounds. See if we can accelerate our milestones toward our series A.”