When Sierra Energy announced during the Nishi campaign that they would collaborate to facilitate the construction of a R&D innovation center as a component of the proposed Nishi Gateway project, former Davis Chief Innovation Officer Rob White, who was hired by Sierra Energy, told the Vanguard that even if that project wasn’t approved, Sierra would be back with another proposal for R&D Space.
It turns out that Rob White (full disclosure, he’s a member of the Vanguard Editorial Board) was true to his word. Yesterday it was revealed that Sierra Energy is announcing the formation of a new business unit to expand its research and development (R&D) space to accommodate companies and entrepreneurs throughout Northern California. This effort is an expansion of the existing Area 52 program, an industrial incubator and maker-space.
Sierra Energy — led by local entrepreneur, innovator, and UC Davis alumnus, Mike G. Hart — is a waste gasification and renewable energy company. Born from the UC Davis Big Bang competition, Sierra Energy is headquartered in downtown Davis and has R&D facilities in South Davis.
At the time, developer Tim Ruff noted about Mr. Hart, “Mike’s commitment to Davis as a start-up mecca is apparent in his efforts with Sierra Energy and Area 52.”
Rob White, prior to being CIO for Davis, was the founder and CEO for the i_GATE Innovation Hub in Livermore and now he’ll be leading the effort as Executive Director for this project.
“The opportunity to expand Sierra’s current R&D facility is a major turning point in addressing the needs of entrepreneurs and researchers throughout Northern California. Very few off-campus facilities have the location and capability to address the immediate needs of innovators who need space to create prototypes,” he explains.
All of this I find bittersweet. Mike Hart should be lauded for stepping up here. As he puts it, “Sierra supports the creation of regional partnerships by establishing R&D facilities for innovators who need space for rapid prototyping and technology development.”
But this is now just about the only game in town.
In 2013, Rob White was brought into the city of Davis with great fanfare. He was the chief innovation officer, having been virtually stolen from Livermore to bolster economic development in Davis. And, while efforts to bring Mace 391 faltered due to miscalculations and land use difficulties, the early efforts seemed successful.
Davis revitalized the Innovation Park Task Force and the Studio 30 report focusing on three locations – Nishi, NW Quadrant and Mace 200. An RFEI (Request for Expressions of Interest) brought three proposals and eventually two applications, and it seemed like we were off and running. However, it was not to be.
The combination of risk brought on by Measure R requirements and the difficulty in financing R&D-only facilities proved fatal to the era of innovation centers for Davis.
First, it was the Davis Innovation Center which folded its proposal before it really got underway in the spring of 2015. Then it was Mace Ranch Innovation Center, after being rebuffed twice, that folded its tents. Finally, the voters rebuffed a more modest 325,000 square foot commercial and technology development space within the broader Nishi Gateway Way project.
For Mike Hart last April, he said, “Davis needs the Nishi Gateway Innovation Center’s R&D space in the pipeline to accommodate home grown businesses to provide additional housing for growing companies and to sustain our vibrant downtown.”
He saw “Area 52 as the first step in fostering innovation by attracting new inventors, entrepreneurs, and small businesses to the area with a space that provides them the necessary resources and tools to get established.”
“Area 52 is already attracting new talent to the region, driving us to consider what the next steps are to keep our success stories here in Davis,” said Tim Keller, UC Davis alumnus and founder of Area 52. “Nishi would provide the necessary space for companies to land upon emerging from Area 52 and UC Davis, enabling them to grow and stay for the long-term.”
As it turns out, Mike Hart, Sierra Energy and the expansion of Area 52 is all we have left.
Just three years ago Davis seemed to be on the verge of starting to realize its position next to a world class university. Three years later, Davis has succumbed to narrow visions and financing difficulties.
Sierra Energy is all we have left at this point. In their press release, Sierra Energy notes that “these enormous undertakings will make Davis and its surrounding area a hotbed of innovation beyond simply playing host to the University.”
Rob White explains, “We hope that SERP will fill a growing need, providing regional entrepreneurs with the same benefits and access to capital and markets long enjoyed by Bay Area entrepreneurs.”
We hope so as well. However, as we have analyzed over the years, the city of Davis has a revenue problem and the innovation centers were a way to generate new tax revenue in a way that would be in line with the community values of Davis.
High-tech spinoffs from the university tapping in AgTech and clean energy production seemed perfectly in line with the progressive sensibilities of Davis.
While I remain excited that Mike Hart and Rob White are keeping this vision alive, it is with a sense of bittersweet sorrow that we must recognize what we have lost and may never recover.
—David M. Greenwald reporting