Entrepreneurs look for connections at North Bay Innovation Week
Hemotek CEO Patrick J. Rousche points to three concrete benefits of housing his 2-year-old startup at the SoCo Nexus business incubator in Rohnert Park: Through it he found his web designer, computer networking consultant and intellectual property attorney.
Rousche, whose company is trying to make a safer needle for patients using dialysis treatments, said being a successful entrepreneur requires reaching out to find partners, investors, mentors and support companies, as well as those who can offer a good tip or an understanding ear.
“You can’t be in this business if you think you know everything,” said Rousche, a former associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Illinois, Chicago. At SoCo Nexus, he said he’s found a community, which is preferable to working out of his garage “where you really do feel on your own.”
Entrepreneurs say they need connections and collaboration like fire needs oxygen. To help them, a collection of business incubators, co-working space operators, educators and investors are banding together this week to produce the first North Bay Innovation Week.
The events, which begin Monday, will provide opportunities in three counties to learn about new financing options, rub shoulders with potential investors or hear startup CEOs like Rousche pitch their products and business models. Hemotek and 11 other companies will be vying for the title of Top Innovator and a $5,000 prize at Friday morning’s Innovation Summit at SoCo Nexus.
The week’s aim is twofold: To help entrepreneurs and to begin building a stronger support network for startup companies across Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties.
“That creates jobs and that creates revenues,” said Steve Palladino, the new chairman of the North Bay iHub, the week’s organizer. “And that’s why this matters.”
The regional efforts to help entrepreneurs often remain under the radar, especially compared to the assistance available in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
Those involved in Innovation Week vary when describing how fledgling the local efforts remain. But they repeatedly said the three-county region has the potential to build a robust “ecosystem” that would make it easier for startup companies with good ideas to succeed.
“I would hope the North Bay would get on the map,” said Lindsay Austin, chairman of the Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster, the group responsible for both iHub and SoCo Nexus.
Events like Innovation Week can help entrepreneurs see that in the North Bay, “you can grow your company and live in a nice place,” he said.
The business cluster began in 2007 at Rohnert Park’s Sonoma Mountain Village with an ambitious goal of creating 2,000 high-tech and environment-friendly jobs in 10 years. With aid from property owner Codding Enterprises and the city of Rohnert Park, the organization opened a business incubator, now known as SoCo Nexus. In 2010, the business cluster won a state designation to oversee an Innovation Hub, or iHub, and foster job creation in the region.
Over five years, the efforts by business incubators, a local “angels” investing group and the region’s Small Business Development Center raised $38 million for nearly 50 new companies in Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties, according to a 2013 iHub report. In that period, the 10 “most outstanding” new companies created 81 jobs.
In the early days, the business cluster set the bar high, saying it wanted to help those startups that could reach $25 million in revenue in five years, Austin said. The group now assists smaller companies.
Still, one thing that sets the startups apart from a typical new restaurant or retail business is the potential for tremendous growth. Another distinction is the need of startups to go outside the traditional avenues for business lending.
“They’re hard for banks to quantify the value,” explained Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
But new types of financing have arisen. At a Friday session at Napa Valley College, participants will learn about microlending and crowdsourcing options. Among the models presented will be Credibles, a San Francisco-based company that allows consumers to prepay for their favorite foods, helping startup food makers by accelerating cash flow. Whole Foods is letting customers use their Credibles “credits” like a gift card, and the startups sweeten the deals with rewards.
Three of the panel’s lenders have said they want to help businesses that suffered in last month’s Napa earthquake, said Charlie Monahan, who coordinates the college’s Business and Entrepreneurship Center.