Finding the New Flavor of San Diego’s Business Community

June 5, 2015

10:00 am

Whether I’m talking to friends, colleagues or strangers, I’ve noticed that San Diego is characterized by many stereotypes — the most common of which is that San Diego is a prime tourist destination and retirement oasis with great beaches, tasty Mexican cuisine, and tons of craft beer. You know what? That’s spot on. The quality of life is amazing.

However, there’s a persistent stereotype that really bothers me: the assumption that San Diego suffers from an uninspired, vanilla business community located in a quaint cul-de-sac of America. On the contrary, its military community, premier public and private universities, renowned research centers, and government representatives are working on some of the world’s most pressing challenges, including national defense, cybersecurity, climate change, telecommunications, municipal cross-border collaboration, and genomics.

Innovation is in San Diego’s DNA, and we’re poised to take San Diego’s already robust economy to a whole new level. Historically, San Diego’s prime real estate and pristine environment attracted tourists and retirees, but it also attracted esteemed pioneers. It’s not surprising, then, that San Diego is now host to some of the most creative thought leaders, entrepreneurs, startups, and problem solvers in the nation.

As I type, I believe these ideas are scaling from lab to market. The world just doesn’t know it yet. Soon, though, we’ll all start to notice that San Diego’s signature flavor isn’t vanilla; it’s innovation. That being said, I can’t blame you for wanting vanilla ice cream to accompany your hot December beach day. Think about it.

The flavor profile of San Diego

San Diego houses a wealth of nascent, maturing, robust networks of tech sectors. Recent reports by the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation point to major growth in green tech, beer, coffee, cybertech, marketing, biotech, med tech, and defense tech.

If that’s not economic diversification and innovation, I don’t know what is.

Behind this innovation is a strong network of entrepreneurs. Many are locally grown in the region’s prestigious academic institutions, including San Diego State University, the University of San Diego, and the University of California, San Diego. One could even argue that without UC San Diego, Qualcomm wouldn’t exist. The same is true for many of the region’s biotech companies, which are rooted in academia.

San Diego deserves a new taste test

San Diego is a great place for fledgling startups to plant their roots. According to the 2014 CONNECT Innovation Report, 228 new innovation startups (and 885 resulting jobs) were created in the first half of 2014 alone. That’s the most innovation startups created in San Diego in a six-month period — ever.

In such an innovative hub, entrepreneurs have a fantastic opportunity to engage in idea exchange. In fact, a section of downtown San Diego has recently been coined the “I.D.E.A. District.” It’s an eclectic neighborhood with an abundance of digital marketing companies and even a Fortune 500 company.

“There’s a wealth of talent right here in our own backyard,” says Greg McKee, CEO of CONNECT. “It’s also a great place to live, so companies can recruit people here as well. Everyone talks about the high cost of living, but in comparison to other urban areas like New York, San Francisco, and even Philadelphia, the overall cost of living is lower in San Diego.”

And according to McKee, another hidden flavor of San Diego’s innovation scene is the available funding. Let’s face it. San Diego is the Cold Stone Creamery of innovative flavors — just add your toppings and you’ll discover a new flavor you never knew existed.

“We’re a city of doers, creators and cutting-edge innovators who value collaboration to accomplish great things,” says Kris Michell, president and CEO of the Downtown San Diego Partnership. “The irony is that we have been too busy changing the world to really take the time to tell our story.”

That’s about to change, though. From life-changing biotech to wireless technology, San Diego is making huge strides in innovation. It’s time to rewrite the story — and in the city’s signature collaborative fashion.

This spring, National Geographic featured San Diego in its “World’s Smart Cities” documentary series. The Downtown San Diego Partnership is working with the brightest digital marketing minds to find ways to frame our story. And my company is finding its place in this cause as well — whether that means getting involved in a startup tech liaison group or sitting on a board of directors to integrate innovative new business leaders and Millennial disruptors.

San Diego has a rich history of innovation and business success, but it’s finally on the cusp of seeing that story told on a broader scale. I can’t wait for the day that my conversation with a stranger centers not on San Diego’s beaches or breweries but on its vast growth and penchant for innovation. Those are flavors we can all appreciate.


Image Credit: Flickr/Nathan Rupert

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Jason Kulpa is the CEO of San Diego, California-based Underground Elephant (, a customer acquisition solutions companies for leading brands. By leveraging proprietary next-generation marketing automation technology, Underground Elephant provides Fortune 1000 companies with direct-response solutions on an unprecedented scale.

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