Visitors to Irvine, and even native Orange Countians, often struggle to define what Irvine stands for. Everyone knows about the city’s reputation for safety and diversity. They know UC Irvine is a great school. What people don’t always see is Irvine’s potential as an engine of economic growth and job creation for the region.
“There is no center of gravity in Orange County entrepreneurship, and we want to be that,” says veteran technology entrepreneur Richard Sudek, Ph.D., Innovation Officer and Executive Director of UCI Applied Innovation, a new center at University Research Park that is focused specifically on connecting campus discoveries to the business community.
The center opened less than two years ago as part of The Cove, a 45,000 square-foot destination for inventors, investors and mentors located at the University Research Park just off Bison Avenue at the western entrance of UCI. The Cove is so named to invoke a “safe harbor” space that provides the kind of opportunities for serendipity that produce true innovation, says Carolyn Stephens, Ph.D., Associate Director and Chief of Staff of UCI Applied Innovation and a technology entrepreneur in her own right.
With the opening of The Cove in the summer of 2015, Irvine can now present itself as the region’s ground zero for transforming research and innovation into new businesses.
On a recent visit, two local companies, a drone maker and a data firm were speaking to a group about cutting-edge agriculture technology. Next door, investors in The Cove’s own $5 million investment fund were listening to a member discuss Snapchat’s impending initial public offering. Groups of Irvine high school students were scheduled to take over the space for a business plan competition over the weekend. The place is clearly buzzing with activity.
Sporting a surfing theme throughout, the location boasts an idea-pitching area ringed with a 150-foot media wall that runs on technology developed at UCI’s School of Engineering. The Cove also rents space to companies and start-ups, including TriTech, a tech-focused Small Business Administration office, Sustain OC, Chicklabs, and Blossom, a smart-sprinkler developer that was acquired last year by Scotts Miracle-Gro.
The Cove also houses its own incubator, Wayfinder, which is open to UCI students, faculty, alumni or anyone with some sort of connection to UCI. So far, 60 startups have participated in the Wayfinder program and 120 start-ups have licensed UC Irvine-affiliated research. That is slightly short of UC Berkeley’s 200 startups licensing research from the university, but it’s not far behind, especially considering that Wayfinder has been operating for less than two years.
Why did it take until 2015 for UCI to start something like this? Everyone at The Cove credits Chancellor Howard Gillman with providing the push to bring The Cove into existence. The academic environment can move slowly in comparison to the business world. One of Gillman’s goals with The Cove is to speed up the process of bringing intellectual property to market. This commitment to business engagement is embedded in the mission of everyone involved in The Cove.
“We want to gain the reputation as the easiest public university to do business with,” Sudek says.
About one-third of the businesses The Cove programs and events are targeting for investment, collaboration or mentoring are medical device and life science-related–one-third engineering and one-third everything else. UCI already had strong relationships with Beckman Laser Institute, Allergan, Edwards Life Sciences Corp. and many other companies with a large local presence. The next natural step was to build on those relationships and establish a hub for start-up incubation.
The push to bring new technologies to market and create new businesses is especially critical to the future of Orange County’s economy. Over the past decade, well-paid technology jobs have been on the decline here. One reason is that start-up companies formed in Orange County often leave the area to head north to Silicon Valley for financial support and access to talent.
The Cove and the UCI Applied Innovation Center aim to be the county’s one-stop shop for tech start-ups so they can get what they need right here, stay, grow their companies, and hire locally.