Sustainable economic growth on California's central coast demands cooperation

Yearning creativity seeks willing opportunity.

The economic drivers in California’s central coast region are agriculture and tourism, which account for just about half of private sector jobs in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.

But the region also has a well educated workforce that commutes to Silicon Valley and beyond – 24% of Santa Cruz residents, according to Bud Colligan, CEO of South Swell Ventures, who spoke at a regional economic development forum in Seaside. He talked about building a regional high tech economy by creating opportunities for people to work where they live…

The usual narrative about tech on the Central Coast is about companies that have left or missed opportunities (Seagate, Digital Research, Borland, SCO, etc.) But [Cruzio, Redshift, Plantronics, Looker, Universal Audio] have been built from local technical and business talent, and in some cases are veterans of companies that left (the people stayed!). And there are many new start-ups that hope to join them.

Colligan’s prescription is to use the region’s unique assets – marine science, genomics and organics research, proximity to Silicon Valley for example – to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem centered on small companies. He’s adding necessary financial fuel: starting Central Coast Angels, a fund to connect early stage investors with innovative local start-ups, and expanding Opportunity Fund, a micro-lending institution, in the region.

There’s no lack of sparks. Santa Cruz has a growing cleantech sector, built around a coastal lifestyle and the human capital that thrives on it. Watsonville and Salinas, and the valley south of it, are home to agricultural technology companies – scrappy start-ups and quiet but long established enterprises alike – that already serve global markets.

Colligan wants to entice regional political and private sector leaders into cooperative efforts, investing in intellectual property and labor force training with regional goals in mind. The challenge is to overcome habitual hyper-local thinking. The reward is a sustainable economy that complements the region’s greatest assets – its “quality of life, natural beauty, clean environment” – and allows people who live here to thrive here.