Who Does What for San Diego's Business Community
Not sure how the Chamber of Commerce differs from the EDC? Or whether CONNECT’s mission overlaps with CommNexus? This guide can help you differentiate between some of the biggest organizations that help cultivate San Diego’s business climate.
San Diego is trying to give businesses a warm and fuzzy feeling about coming to and staying in town.
On top of government efforts like subsidies and tax cuts, there are many private efforts to cultivate the business climate in San Diego.
There’s myriad organizations, councils and industry associations throughout San Diego that try to foster a good atmosphere for businesses. As we delve into the business climate in San Diego, these organizations make many appearances in their advocacy roles.
There’s a lot of overlap in the personnel of these organizations – the CEO of one organization most likely sits on the board of directors of another. There’s also overlap in each group’s missions – both CONNECT and CommNexus, for example, work to build up the high-tech community through networking and services that incubate startups by providing access to capital and mentorship.
Here is a look at the groups trying to cultivate business in San Diego, and a few of the key differences between them.
These are the main economic powerhouses among San Diego’s business cultivators. They’ve made major contributions to San Diego’s economy for decades, and have worked to bring together, develop and support thousands of companies in San Diego.
What it does: The Chamber of Commerce provides the loudest political voice for the existing business community in San Diego. It frequently hosts things like business workshops and informal networking opportunities with the goal of bringing together large and small businesses and generally nurturing the existing economy in San Diego. Recently, it’s started serving as a major voice for pro-business policy issues in the county and state.
Who’s involved: The Chamber of Commerce gained a higher political profile when former Mayor Jerry Sanders signed on as president and CEO at the end of 2012. The chamber has more than 3,000 members.
What people say: Years ago, then-City Councilman Carl DeMaio blasted the Chamber of Commerce as politically irrelevant. Since then, the chamber has bolstered its political stature considerably, quickly becoming one of the most important groups on San Diego’s political scene. The Chamber of Commerce upped its contributions to its political action committee from $35,000 in 2012 to $345,000 this year, and has vowed to use its political clout to “make San Diego the most business-friendly region in California.”
What it does: The Economic Development Corporation is mostly made up of large businesses that try to promote the business climate for the whole San Diego region. The mission of the EDC is to retain businesses that are already in San Diego and to convey a good business climate to draw in new companies, said Mark Cafferty, the group’s president and CEO. It doesn’t necessarily bring together companies that are already here (as the Chamber of Commerce does), nor does it provide funds to companies. And unlike the Chamber of Commerce, which supports big and small businesses alike, the EDC is concerned with the “economic drivers” in San Diego. These are the companies that would leave a lasting economic scar in San Diego if they left.
There are also several smaller Economic Development Councils promoting their respective regions in San Diego: one representing North County, one for East County (which has championed manufacturing) and one for South County (which has championed the airport border crossing).
Who’s involved: The Regional EDC counts some of the biggest businesses across all sectors in San Diego as members, including Northrop Grumman and SeaWorld.
What people say: The Regional EDC was another of the big business groups that DeMaio blasted as unimportant in 2010. Unlike the Chamber of Commerce, the EDC still keeps a lower political profile, though it supports business-friendly policies in San Diego County.
What it is: BIOCOM is the major representative of the life sciences industry in San Diego (we’re considered one of the top three clusters for biotechnology in the nation). It organizes networking opportunities and lobbies for life sciences on a state and federal level, while fostering new and existing biotech companies throughout the region.
Who’s involved: The board consists of pharmaceutical experts, life science lawyers and university officials. BIOCOM has more than 600 members, including ISIS Pharmaceuticals, Sequenom and Illumina.
What people say: The organization generated controversy when it opened its doors to Texas Gov. Rick Perry last year. In the midst of fears that Perry has been intentionally drawing biotech companies away from California, BIOCOM CEO Joe Panetta told the U-T, “We have to get away from the idea that everything that happens in a biotech company has to happen here in San Diego, and places like Texas provide opportunities for a growing market.”
What it is: Originally formed to help bring together university and other researchers in San Diego with people who had the capital to turn ideas into real businesses, CONNECT has evolved into the major representative of the innovation and technology sector in San Diego. It still works to develop ideas into companies through its Springboard program, which has helped companies raise over $1 billion in funds for their ideas.
Who’s involved: CONNECT was founded in 1985 by philanthropic icons like Irwin Jacobs, Mary Walshok, and Buzz Woolley through UCSD. (Disclosure: Woolley is the founder of Voice of San Diego, and Jacobs is a major donor.) Its members include companies like SDG&E, Qualcomm, Soitec and many local universities.
What people say: CONNECT was one of the main subjects of the locally famous essay dubbed “Brant’s Rant,” written by entrepreneur Brant Cooper in 2013. He claimed that CONNECT – along with other high-profile organizations, including EvoNexus and Tech Coast Angels – is filled with older-generation tech whizzes who are out of touch when it comes to growing new startups.
Others have also expressed frustration that legacy organizations like CONNECT don’ reflect the diversity of San Diego. “San Diego for me is a poster child for the tech patriarchy,” Paul Kedrosky, a La Jolla-based venture capitalist and senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, told us last year. “I think a lot of the institutions have long outlived some of their utility.”
These organizations help foster a thriving climate within certain areas of San Diego’s business community – whether that’s sports, clean technology, the military or any of the other business interests in San Diego.
Certainly a heavy-hitter with some policy issues regarding density and housing taxes, the BIA San Diego provides representation and advocacy for the development and real estate community in San Diego. It opposed raising the affordable housing tax at the beginning of the year.
The Downtown San Diego Partnership is an economic development agency whose main purpose is to attract new businesses, residents and visitors to the downtown area, and generally to promote downtown as a central hub for San Diego culture and business.
Hosted by CONNECT, the MIT Enterprise Forum hosts sessions and workshops to educate business leaders and provide them a chance to network with other businesses, mostly focused on technology. It also hosts a panel where representatives from businesses come in with real problems and present them to experts and an audience. The panel debates and gives advice on the best strategies to move forward.
Cleantech was a startup originally incubated by CONNECT in 2007. It’s now an independent organization that supports and lobbies for the work of startups and businesses that focus on the promotion and use of clean, environmentally friendly technology. It also advocates for new clean-tech companies to set up shop in San Diego, notably helping to get the German company Car2Go’s electric pay-as-you-go car service to come to San Diego in 2011.
Originally an offshoot of CONNECT but now its own enterprise, San Diego Sport Innovators promotes all forms of the sports and “active lifestyle” industry throughout the region. With the effervescent Bill Walton at its helm, it incubates startups and mentors existing businesses to cultivate San Diego’s sports business environment.
The San Diego Brewer’s Guild brings myriad local breweries together to cross-promote events and to increase the availability of local craft beers at bars and restaurants across the city. It also releases a handy brochure detailing almost 200 of the best restaurants and breweries in San Diego.
CommNexus is an association of businesses promoting high-tech companies and services through mentorship and networking programs. Similar to CONNECT, it also runs the EvoNexus incubator, a popular program that helps accelerate the growth of startups by offering office space and mentorship for free for those admitted to the program.
San Diego Venture Group consists of a group of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who connect startups and small businesses with venture capitalists to raise the money they need to get a company launched. SDVG hosts a program called VentureLink, through which it arranges hour-long meetings between a few hand-picked companies that match well with certain venture capitalists’ desires.
Tech Coast Angels is one of the top two angel investor groups in the country, meaning that it provides investment, connections and mentoring to early-stage startups throughout Southern California. The San Diego chapter invests more than $7 million annually in local startup companies, and the group – upwards of 300 venture capitalists throughout Southern California – has invested about $120 million in more than 200 companies.
Serving as the representative organization for San Diego’s defense industry, the council promotes the military’s local economic impact, and lobbies politicians to roll out favorable policies for the defense industry in San Diego.
Tourism is San Diego’s third largest industry. The Tourism Authority promotes the San Diego region as a top travel destination for both leisure and business activities. The industry is funded by more than 1,000 member companies, which it then advertises to tourists coming through the city.
This is part of our quest digging into the difficulties – real or perceived – of doing business in San Diego. Check out the previous story in our series, One Thing the City Can’t Manufacture: More Space., and the next, San Diego’s Venture Capital Problem.