CONNECT is a regional program that catalyzes the creation of innovative technology and life sciences products in San Diego County by linking inventors and entrepreneurs with the resources they need for success. Since 1985, CONNECT has assisted in the formation and development of more than 3,000 companies. The leadership of CONNECT attributes its success to the unique culture of collaboration between industry, capital sources, professional service providers and research organizations that CONNECT has sought to foster in the region.
CONNECT was originally founded as a part of the University of California (UC) San Diego in the mid-80s. At that time traditional industries in the region were on the decline, the attraction of companies to the San Diego region was very difficult and region leaders were searching for a path to economic renewal and sustained growth.
Meanwhile, innovative high tech and life sciences companies such as IMED, IVAC, Linkabit, SAIC, Qualcomm and Hybritech were quietly developing in the San Diego region, fueled in part by technology and scientists at research institutions on the Torrey Pines Mesa. UC San Diego, the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation and private sector business leaders recognized in this an opportunity for CONNECT to transform San Diego’s growing research capabilities into commercially viable products and businesses that would ultimately increase the prosperity of the region.
By leveraging the various assets within the region, CONNECT focuses its efforts on accelerating the commercialization of new technology and life sciences products. While that mission has stayed relatively true since its initial creation, the organization and its program offerings have continued to evolve in response to the changes in the region’s economic climate.
At the time that CONNECT was being founded, UC San Diego was just beginning to mature as a research institution, and there were a small number of other research institutions in the region. Over the years as San Diego’s technology and life sciences clusters have matured, UC San Diego has continued to grow, and in tandem, so has the entire research base of the region. Today, San Diego has more than 80 research institutions; about two thirds are part of the UC San Diego system, and the rest include private research organizations and a number of other academic-based research institutions.
In 2005, to better serve the entire research community, CONNECT spun-out of UC San Diego and formed the CONNECT Association, a 501c6 trade organization and CONNECT Foundation, a 501c3 charitable foundation. As a result of spinning-out from UC San Diego, CONNECT has been able to broaden its mandate to include public advocacy work on behalf of its members through the trade organization.
Today, CONNECT is focused on delivering the fundamental programs that the innovation community depends upon. At the same time the organization is creating new services to meet the needs of the evolving economic and policy landscape and the new clusters that are developing within the region. Challenges include attracting investment capital and engineering and experienced management talent.
The organization views its “sweet-spot” as the “beginning of the food chain” – the point when the market potential of an innovation is being assessed and then commercialized. Toward this end, CONNECT works with innovators in research institutions, early stage and growth companies and major corporations. Whether a company is looking to spin out or license an innovation, launch a second or third product into a new market or evaluate the commercial potential of a discovery CONNECT has experienced entrepreneurs-in-residence who can assess the innovation and coach the innovators through the process.
Throughout the last quarter of a century CONNECT has assisted clusters in developing their own trade organizations as they become large enough and deep enough to sustain a stand-alone organization focused on the cluster’s specific technical needs. Organizations that CONNECT has assisted in fostering over the years include BIOCOM, CommNexus San Diego, CleanTECH San Diego and Wireless Life Sciences Alliance. CONNECT either creates or participates in the creation of a cluster trade organization as the cluster evolves and grows within the region. It is currently partnering in the creation of a biomimicry proof of concept center that will lead to the development of biomimicry clusters across the US. In addition it is incubating an action and sports organization led by NBA legend Bill Walton called SD Sport Innovators to focus on the advanced technologies found within the sporting industry such as high performance materials and designs, clean technology and wireless and remote monitoring.
Continual development of new strategies by the board of directors and staff leadership team to meet the evolving needs of the innovation economy keeps CONNECT relevant to its members. It has enabled the organization to deliver measurable results to the companies served, even in the midst of the recent recession. In addition, the organization recognizes that each member company or organization is unique. Therefore, the staff works to tailor its programming and individual assistance in order to ensure these specific needs are being met. This approach has led to a stable base of membership that grows consistently each year.
CONNECT’s annual budget is approximately $3 million. About half of the organization’s revenue is primarily generated from membership dues paid by industry, professional service providers, research institutions and venture capital firms. Members provide additional sponsorship revenue for individual programs. This base of revenue enables CONNECT to provide mentoring and educational programming either free or at a very low cost for researchers and early and growth stage companies. The revenue from ticket and table sales, along with a small number of grants mainly from private foundations makes up the balance of CONNECT’s budget.
As a result of its efforts, CONNECT has assisted more than 3,000 companies in attracting more than $2 billion in investment capital. CONNECT is widely regarded as one of the world’s most successful organizations linking inventors and entrepreneurs with the resources they need for commercialization of innovative products.The program has been modeled in more than 50 regions around the world – most recently in New York City, Bogotá, Colombia and Saudi Arabia. CONNECT has recently been recognized by Inc., Time and Entrepreneur magazines and received the 2010 Innovation in Economic Development Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce for creation of Regional Innovation Clusters. CONNECT also manages the San Diego Innovation Hub (iHub) designated by the state of California Governor’s Office of Economic Development in 2010.
CONNECT’s senior leadership were formerly CEOs and business owners from the regional technology community, and bring their knowledge of the needs of start-up businesses to their roles with CONNECT.
CONNECT’s staff of 20 employees have extensive event planning and marketing experience that is necessary to successfully organize the more than 350 events that CONNECT offers each year. All of CONNECT’s staff are focused on helping to grow the organization’s relationship with each member company. CONNECT’s senior leadership believes that building relationships or “connecting” is vital to building a successful business. Introductions run the gamut from potential new clients, new talent, venture capital or the next deal.
CONNECT has two Boards of Directors. For its 501c3 organization, there are over 90 Board Members, with 24 serving on its Executive Committee. The 501c6 Association has 9 members on its Board. CONNECT has intentionally built boards that represent a broad constituency so that it can rally civic leadership quickly when there is a pressing need, opportunity or initiative that requires action. CONNECT works to keep a good representation of all the constituents of San Diego’s innovation economy on the Board at all times, including venture capitalists, scientists, the research institutions, entrepreneurs, CEOs and service providers. Representation on the boards means civic leaders are already informed and ready to move very quickly to fundraise, lobby and respond to the initiative.
CONNECT conducts annual board retreats and regular board breakout sessions at board meetings to engage every board member in the strategic direction of the organization. There is official representation of both boards on the c3 board, c6 board and Executive Committee to ensure integration. In addition, the leadership works to ensure each Board Member is engaged in a program. The organization believes that individuals have a deeper understanding of, and passion for, the organization when they are personally engaged and invested.
Finally, CONNECT’s unique strength is found within the organization’s 1,800 volunteers. CONNECT staff handle the hands-on logistics of the programs and reach out to volunteers to speak, judge, screen, develop program content and mentor. Engagement provides volunteers with an expanded network, leadership opportunities and an opportunity to give back to the community.
Summary of Key Success Factors
There are a range of key success factors behind CONNECT’s track record. Most important has been the culture of collaboration fostered by CONNECT’s first executive director, Bill Otterson. Bill believed that a “rising tide” would “lift all boats.” He convinced competitors to collaborate and build a thriving life sciences and technology cluster together for the benefit of all. This culture of collaboration continues to this day. All CONNECT’s members are engaged in active roles within the organization and make it possible for CONNECT to offer a deep and wide range of high quality services to the innovation community to catalyze and accelerate the process of product commercialization. This level of engagement keeps CONNECT in touch with the economic and policy needs of the community and the trends, challenges and opportunities that must be addressed.