Entrepreneur Sees Berkeley As Future High-Tech Hotspot

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At a Berkeley Startup Cluster/Infusion lunch, entrepreneur-turned-academic Vivek Wadhwa presented and discussed innovative strategies that could one day transform Berkeley into a high-tech mecca - and although they were well-received, city officials say going through with the suggested plan would be contingent upon an improved economic climate and a well-thought out process of determining the logistics of the strategy.

Wadhwa, who is a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley School of Information, introduced and spoke about concepts on how to jump-start Berkeley's prominence in the technology startup world.

However, the city must first attract the tech startups, a goal that Wadhwa said is very achievable, considering the city's widely available physical resources and the close proximity of UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Wadhwa added that the city should take risks and not try to pick winners - successful startups - because nobody knows where the next big breakthrough is going to come from.

"If you took these crumbling buildings, outfitted them with Wi-Fi, give out free office space, build a network around them - the magic would happen," he said.

However, his suggestion of enticing startups by providing them with up to 100 free or very affordable office spaces does not avail itself to the current economic climate.

"Unfortunately, we don't have the funding to do that in the near term," said John Caner, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association.

Michael Cohen, associate director of UC Berkeley's Office of Technology Licensing, joined by Michael Caplan, the city's economic development manager, composed a panel that asked Wadhwa about specific changes the city could make to increase its desirability to startup firms.

In response to Wadhwa's concept of free or affordable office space, Caplan said the city does not have a "free model" yet, but that having a sponsor or turning to cross-subsidization might be viable options.

Cohen said there are "low barriers to exit" in Berkeley and that it is easy to go to Silicon Valley or San Francisco to establish startups, adding that the city has to strive to "be better than San Francisco and San Jose" because of the presence of comparable space and human capital.

Berkeley Daily Planet executive director Becky O'Malley presented a concern that successful startup proliferation in the city may raise property costs, consequently making rent unaffordable for small businesses.

"Every time there's a ghost of the idea, all the real estate speculators come in like sharks to snatch up the properties," she said. "This is going to kill startups."

Alan Saldich, an entrepreneur in the city, pointed out how Silicon Valley attracts startups and is able to concentrate them in a manner that provides for vital networking and "face time" with other companies.

"Silicon Valley has a great array of giant companies," he said, adding that Sunnyvale's Plug and Play Tech Center is also key in making the location desirable. "They have 250 startups in one building and pay - on a month-to-month basis - $500."

Kevin Leong, founder and CEO of Taptin, a platform for hyperlocal location smart phone apps, also pointed out that Berkeley lacked the "startup parties" and social events that allow startup entrepreneurs to network.

"We need a promotion to say the city wants startups, not just that you can locate here," Saldich said in agreement with Wadhwa's suggestion of doling out 100 very affordable office spaces in the city to attract startups. "Our reputation is that Berkeley's a dump. The image of Berkeley is not positive. That's something we really have to fix."


Jessica Gillotte is the lead business reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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