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Pasadena's mature tech scene aims to emerge from Silicon Beach shadow

No longer content to let the Westside hog L.A.'s tech spotlight, Pasadena techies are uniting to market the city as a thriving technology hub — and, in turn, land investment dollars and credibility.

March 09, 2014|By Andrea Chang

Ask anyone about L.A. tech these days and they'll almost certainly point to Santa Monica and Venice, where hundreds of start-ups have emerged in the last few years.

So-called Silicon Beach is home to Snapchat, sizable Google and Microsoft offices, and a growing number of venture capital firms and co-working spaces.

Almost every night, tech entrepreneurs flock to networking happy hours and parties. Potential investors flock to demo days that showcase the latest start-ups. When BlackBerry Chief Executive John Chen and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt came to town last week, it was for a glitzy tech confab in Santa Monica.

But while Silicon Beach has been getting much of the spotlight, a separate and more established tech community has been quietly thriving 25 miles to the east. And now Pasadena tech firms say they are no longer content to sit on the sidelines.

When it comes to the local technology scene, they say, it's not just a Westside story.

"Silicon Beach has done a much better marketing job than we have," said Mark Breitenberg, co-founder of the Design Accelerator, which provides funding and mentorship to design-oriented start-ups in Pasadena. "I don't think we ever really got together and took stock of what we have and promoted it. Not a lot of people outside of Pasadena know what's going on here."

Historically, Pasadena had been the main hub of tech activity in the Southland, sprouting companies such as Overture, Citysearch, EarthLink, Cogent Systems, Picasa and EHarmony. Tech incubator Idealab, founded by Bill Gross in 1996, was developing start-ups long before Snapchat's founders were even out of elementary school.

Lately, however, Pasadena tech has been overshadowed by its more glamorous cousin to the west. Pasadena tech leaders say they've taken note of the buzz surrounding the Westside and concede that they have some catching up to do.

That has led to a long-delayed coming out of sorts as Pasadena techies band together to relaunch the city as a tech hub with which to be reckoned.

"It's a call to action," said Andy Wilson, one of the Pasadena entrepreneurs leading the effort.

Last year Wilson co-founded Innovate Pasadena, a group that supports the local innovation community by coordinating among the city's colleges, accelerators and start-ups. It also provides networking opportunities such as Friday morning coffee talks, happy hour meet-ups and other get-togethers.

In just eight months, Innovate Pasadena has organized 75 events, attracting some 4,500 entrepreneurs. This week, the group will host its inaugural Connect Weekend featuring four days of tech talks, panels, hackathons, open houses and mixers.

Pasadena has a lot going for it: As an older tech community, seasoned veterans have years of institutional knowledge, which they're using to create new start-ups and to mentor younger generations of entrepreneurs.

The close-knit network is bolstered by the proximity of Caltech and the Art Center College of Design, which provide a steady stream of bright graduates every year. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is also nearby, giving the area a powerhouse name in advanced research and development.

Getting Pasadena front and center isn't just a ploy for hype. Supporters say publicity brings about attention, which in turn leads to valuable investment dollars and credibility.

Of the 25 L.A. County tech companies that received the most venture capital funding in the fourth quarter, the vast majority were located on the Westside, with Snapchat in Venice, TrueCar in Santa Monica, JustFab in El Segundo and the Honest Co. in Santa Monica taking the top four spots. Not one Pasadena tech firm made the list, according to the MoneyTree Report by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Assn.

"If you're identified as an innovation area, people start knocking on your doors proactively," said Wilson, who is also chief executive of Rexter, a professional relationships management start-up in Pasadena. "When VCs come to L.A., of course they're going to look at Silicon Beach. It's not that we're resentful, it's more that we need to do a better job."

Despite the constant comparisons, both sides say there is no bitterness brewing between Silicon Beach and Pasadena. The hope is to strengthen the Southern California tech region as a whole — and that includes emerging tech companies in Orange County — so that it can one day rival Silicon Valley.

And techies point out that there are major differences between the two sides of town.

They note that, generally speaking, Silicon Beach produces more consumer-oriented Internet companies, with apps, e-commerce and entertainment content-driven start-ups dominating the conversation.

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