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THE TECH COAST

Cultivating Home-Grown Talent

March 09, 1998|KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INLAND EMPIRE — Like the rest of the Tech Coast, the Inland Empire aspires to host vibrant high-tech companies. The difference is that tech leaders in Riverside and San Bernardino counties freely admit they have a long way to go.

"The challenge for the region is to knock off this fantasy of believing we can attract high-tech companies from outside the region," said Lee Hanson, an associate professor of management at Cal State San Bernardino and a member of the Inland Empire Technology Entrepreneurs. "We've got to create it at home through technology transfer."

Promoting the transfer of technology from the region's colleges--including UC Riverside, Cal Poly Pomona and the Claremont Colleges--is the goal of a new civic group called Connecting Research and Economic Development for the 21st Century, or Core21.

"The tremendous brain resources we have here can be converted to successful companies," said Robert Klemme, a Riverside venture capitalist who serves as chairman of Core21's board and its volunteer chief executive.

One of the region's most successful examples of that is Optivus Technology, a 5-year-old San Bernardino firm spun off from Loma Linda University Medical Center. The company, which produces equipment for cancer-fighting proton therapy, employs 48 people--with 15 job openings for engineers--and expects sales of at least $5 million this year.

Despite being part of the Inland Empire's high-tech scene for more than a decade, Optivus President and Chief Executive Jon Slater said he was surprised to learn from the state Employment Development Department that the region is home to about 2,000 technology-based companies.

"Most of us thought you could count all of the tech companies here on one hand," Slater said.

The Inland Empire Economic Partnership is conducting a survey to learn more about the tech firms in its midst, said Teri Ooms, president of the San Bernardino-based organization. The group will work with the entrepreneurs association to bring the firms together to foster a sense of community.

Jack Dangermond, founder of Redlands-based Environmental Systems Research Institute, the largest high-tech firm in the Inland Empire, said there are some distinct advantages to being off the beaten path.

"Because we're in a small town and somewhat isolated from the fast lane of high tech, we've been able to grow and concentrate on our work instead of being distracted by the competition and getting caught up in the soap opera of Silicon Valley," said Dangermond, whose firm makes geographic information system and mapping software.

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Garner Holt founded his animatronics firm, Garner Holt Productions, in San Bernardino because he grew up there. In 20 years of building automated characters for Disney theme parks, Las Vegas hotels and Chuck E. Cheese pizza restaurants, Holt has found the Inland Empire to be an ideal location.

"We're right on the freeway, and we can shoot to the Ontario airport in 20 minutes," Holt said. "Our employees have options for living in a less stressful and less congested area. A lot of our artistic talent pool comes from the Los Angeles area. It all adds up to be a real optimum place for us."

Karen Kaplan covers technology and can be reached at karen.kaplan@latimes.com

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