CONNECT’s offices are surprisingly small for an organization with such a wide reach.
That’s because the incubator’s real influence is not contained in this bland office park in La Jolla, but found elsewhere in corporate headquarters and small startups in San Diego and worldwide. CONNECT has played a role in most of the city’s startup successes, placing it at the center of the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and, said Greg Horowitt, an author, venture capitalist and co-founder of Global CONNECT, the organization’s international arm.
“What CONNECT does, it acts kind of as the heart,” he said. “It pumps and allows for the circulation of this knowledge in a very, very efficient way because it’s a relatively small staff and that staff’s capabilities and competencies are really focused.”
CONNECT got its start in 1985 after a company chose Austin over San Diego for its headquarters. When asked why, it cited a lack of interaction between UC San Diego and the business community. In response, the business community and university created the new group and hired William Otterson to run it. Otterson, an entrepreneur and irresistible salesman, grew it into a model that has been copied worldwide.
Today, CONNECT is no longer associated with the university, but is an independent nonprofit that offers high tech and life sciences entrepreneurs networking, training, mentoring, partners, support services and more. It has more than 2,000 volunteers and organizes 350 events a year. It has helped launch 3,000 companies. It has a lobbying office in Washington D.C. and has served as a model for programs in more than 40 regions around the world. Its annual budget of $3.5 million comes from memberships and grants.
As it’s grown, it has spun off trade organizations for separate industries, including BIOCOM for life sciences, CommNexus for wireless, CleanTECH San Diego for clean energy, Software San Diego and San Diego Sports Innovators.
Or, as CONNECT CEO Duane Roth, who passed away in August, put it, “We are probably the best incubator ever.”
Barbara Bry, an angel investor and one of the founders of the organization, says CONNECT is largely responsible for the high degree of collaboration in San Diego among industries, research organizations and higher education. “It’s just sort of become a big umbrella in town,” she said.
Like any large, successful organization that dominates its field, CONNECT has its critics.
In a blog post earlier this year, local tech entrepreneur and author Brant Cooper took CONNECT and other parts of San Diego’s entrepreneurship establishment to task for what he says is a lack of transparency, relevancy and results.
CONNECT’s software mentors are out of touch or lack the knowledge to offer advice for today’s tech entrepreneurs, he said. “They don’t understand that a startup is not a small version of a big company,” he said. “They’re giving bad advice.”
As an alternative, Cooper, a former CONNECT mentor, in 2010 formed the meetup groups San Diego Tech Founders and San Diego Tech Coffee. Others have complained that CONNECT, because of its size and dominance, makes it difficult for other groups to get funding or attention.
Horowitt concedes that CONNECT is not connecting with young entrepreneurs as well as it should, but not because it’s out of date. “Do I think we’re as relevant to these millennials? No, but it’s not because what CONNECT is doing is not relevant. It’s because I think perhaps the way we’re reaching out to them could be better.”