Festival highlights emergence of Silicon Beach

SANTA MONICA — Arriving at Silicon Beach Fest from San Francisco to hear Silicon Valley legend Mark Suster give the keynote speech Friday morning, Shirley Lin was surprised to find the auditorium more than half empty.

Had Suster – former Salesforce.com VP of product management and founder of Santa Monica-based startup accelerator Launchpad LA – spoken in Northern California, it would surely have been a full house.

Lin, a founding partner of Bay Area startup community 800 Birds, explained:

“In Silicon Valley, everybody knows who he is and I looked at that room and said, ‘That’s the difference.’ But it’s changing and it’s different here. There’s a lot more entertainment startups.”

Tech companies connected to Hollywood got a spotlight during the second annual Silicon Beach Fest, held last Wednesday through Saturday at office and co-working spaces within walking distance around palm tree-lined Santa Monica.

Last year’s festival generated so much interest that this year’s ran a day longer and gave 40 Los Angeles startups the chance to pitch their companies to venture capitalists and investors for a $5,000 reward.

The panels, workshops, hackathons and mixers drew 3,000 entrepreneurs and enthusiasts, about 1,000 more than the previous year, according to festival director Kevin Winston. Twice as many panelists participated in 17 tracks, which included three or four panels around a specific topic like gaming or fashion tech.

In a distinctly Hollywood panel on visual effects of movie blockbusters, Josh Jaggers, a visual effects producer for “Man of Steel,” broke down individual shots in a scene. He said movie production software may be coming from overseas, but:

“You have all the studios here, production hubs. The creative front end is here, so you have to funnel through L.A. at some point.”

While the name ‘Silicon Beach’ sounds like an attempt to compare the three-mile stretch of startups from Santa Monica to Venice with Silicon Valley, Winston spoke otherwise of the event’s mission. The founder and CEO of DigitalLA, Los Angeles’ largest networking organization of startups and the tech community, told SFBay:

“The festival program is tailored to Los Angeles and unique to what we have. We had a new panel added called new venture capitalists because since last year, more have opened. We asked why they are trying to move here and what they’re finding.”

Micah Baldwin, founder and CEO of Graphicly in Palo Alto and a panelist in the branding and marketing track, said he’s seen “mad growth” in the L.A. tech scene in the last few years.

His panel at co-working space Cross Campus on Broadway wasn’t jam-packed, but Baldwin said the conversation and networking exceeded his expectations:

“I’m less concerned about the number of people and more concerned about the quality of people and the quality is definitely really, really high.”

During another panel nearby at workspace ROC Santa Monica on what Southern California universities are doing for startups, a handful of attendees asked why academia hasn’t provided sufficient support for entrepreneurs.

Institutions in SoCal are still trying to figure out how to catch up to Silicon Valley’s entrepreneur culture, admitted Julian Jacobs, an agent with United Talent Agency who partnered with the University of Southern California on an incubator at the engineering school.

One step in that direction would be forging stronger connections among local universities like USC, UCLA, Caltech and Pepperdine, Jacobs said:

“We’re here to facilitate these conversations and try to catch up to San Francisco.”

Evonne Heyning, co-founder of educational technology startup EDDEFY, added to the conversation by mentioning that she frequently gets offers for office space in San Francisco and Mountain View, where her company is based. She works out of Alhambra, a suburb east of Los Angeles, but added:

“When I meet Silicon Valley and San Francisco investors, they encourage me not to be a part of accelerators here because they don’t respect the entrepreneur community here. It’s a very strange relationship.”

This ‘inferiority complex’ was the one part of Silicon Beach Fest that local entrepreneur Chad Billmyer did not appreciate.

The 34-year-old founder of Santa Monica startup Panjo, a marketplace for enthusiasts, said Silicon Valley simply can’t be replicated:

“You hear about various cities in the U.S. trying to start a startup or tech ecosystem and I think those are better served focusing on their strengths. Not to say Silicon Beach can’t hold its own.”

Analogous to its geography, L.A.’s tech scene is spread out, Billmyer said, but that’s why he and his four staff members found the event valuable:

“It’s bringing together nodes of tech in one place.”

Silicon Valley became the tech capital of the world in large part because California is one of the only states in the U.S. where non-compete clauses are void by state law, allowing tech employees to take their talent to their company’s competitor or elsewhere, according to attorney Kenneth Weatherwax with Goldberg, Lowenstein & Weatherwax LLP in Los Angeles.

Silicon Beach – by virtue of being in the same state with this legally imposed freedom – has potential for enormous success as well, said Weatherwax, who attended the festival to increase his local tech contacts.

However, he said one question needed more addressing: What are the competitive advantages that L.A. and Silicon Beach have over Silicon Valley?

The answer – Hollywood – was obvious but vague. Weatherwax said about the conversation:

“It was more like, ‘Well, Hollywood is here and I know a guy in Hollywood that can help.’ I didn’t hear things like, ‘We have film schools here and they don’t have film schools up there.’”

As an area that has gone through various names including ‘Tech Coast’ and its biggest wave of entrepreneurship and innovation three years ago, Silicon Beach has an identity that is still evolving, said Jay Tucker, chief marketing officer of the Institute for Communication Technology Management at USC’s Marshall School of Business.

It’s a revolution, in a sense, Tucker said:

“While some people might see individual companies, what I see is a movement where people talk to each other and share ideas and it’s pretty exciting. Entrepreneurs are trying to take advantage of a unique space down here, and not to mention, you can walk one mile and be on the beach. So that’s not bad!”