By Benjamin Wynd
Davis, CA – One of the biggest challenges facing Davis and its quest for economic development is the lack of commercial space suitable for high tech and lab space.
The Vanguard spoke this week with Tim Keller, an experienced entrepreneur who has been starting companies for a large portion of his adult life. When starting a company in 2008, he found Davis lacked any feasible space to house his business. Keller was in turn pushed to commute to another location where his company was then based, a story too common for this town. He started Inventopia, a non-profit, in order to help startup companies find space in Davis and remain here. His professional experience and observation of a myriad of startups leaving Davis has given him personal reason to provide strong support for DiSC.
What types of jobs and talent would you like to see DiSC provide or maintain?
DiSC will not “provide” any talent of course. But it will allow the jobs that utilize UC Davis—generated talent—to be located here, and will allow the city to reap the economic benefits of those jobs being located here.
As to what kind—you just need to look at the kinds of companies that have set up operations here: Life science companies, plant and crop science, robotics and automation, food tech and pharma. These are the strong points of UC Davis academically and it is why the companies that you see setting up shop here in Davis choose to do so.
Keller adds that Davis shouldn’t be compared to Silicon Valley. He emphasizes the amount of Life Science talent in Davis should be uplifted, while Silicon Valley largely focuses more on talent in technology.
Would you say space in Davis is being utilized well? Where in Davis is there room for improvement, and where is a good example of used space?
No, Davis should be far denser. It is ironic that in the process for considering new developments in Davis that so much emphasis is always placed on preserving “open space.” Density of development is what makes cities “green,” it makes it possible to support transit, and density also makes it possible to set up small retail outlets throughout the city so that basic grocery, dining and cafe’s are within walking distance of people’s homes and offices. We need to stop talking about “open space” and start focusing on higher-density mixed-use space throughout the city.
How will DiSC help the city of Davis function/change how the city operates?
Davis has been “leaking” extremely valuable companies for decades now. Because we have a lack of commercial space, a lot of companies set up shop in Woodland, west sac, or elsewhere. These are companies founded by Davis residents—and those residents are forced to commute out of Davis to work. (By the way, I lived this story myself personally with my last company.) If we can keep those companies here, it means less vehicle miles for Davis residents, it keeps those people here going to our restaurants, etc., and the sales taxes that those companies eventually pay will ALSO make their way into local coffers.
Keller also told additional stories of other companies that were lost to West Sacramento and Sacramento itself. Origin Materials, he said, is a classic example of this “leaking.” He explained that they went public, had a billion dollar evaluation, and went to West Sacramento because there was a lack of commercial space in Davis.
Is there anything the managers of DiSC can do to incentivize startups and companies to take their work there and ensure success?
Startups companies WANT to set up in Davis because of our talent base. That is not the problem.
The only potential problem that I can foresee is the mix of space types and sizes that get built there. Buzz Oates tends to build really big buildings and tends to cater mostly to really well-established companies with good credit. That is not what we need in an “innovation park.” We need to ensure that the actual build-out comprises mostly flexible buildings that are easy to subdivide into suites that are in the 1,000-2,000 square foot range. That is what startup companies need—so we need to ensure that is what gets built at DiSC.
It is also important that DiSC incorporates a really high density “downtown” section as a social center for the development—around which the majority of the non-industrial office space gets built. Good innovation centers built elsewhere all incorporate the human/social need to have gathering spots. There are a lot of “bad” commercial parks in the area which are food & culture deserts. They don’t even have sidewalks. DiSC needs to have its own “scene” where business deals get made, and which allows people to walk to grab a coffee or have a meeting over lunch without having to get in a car. This doesn’t need to be a huge component of DiSC, and it doesn’t need to compete with downtown—just enough of a localized set of resources to serve the on-site demand.
What do you think the University and/or City Council can do to incentivize businesses to keep or move their business into DiSC? (Or any available space in town as a whole?)
See above. The hard truth is that catering to startups is NOT the most natural route to take for most landlords, so the city does need to weigh in, and help shape DiSC after passage to ensure that the right mix of startup friendly buildings and business models are present to allow us to retain our locally-generated startups.
What components of transportation are the most important or most needed to support businesses within DiSC?
The shuttle that goes directly downtown or to campus is really a must. Three stops at the most. Startup companies in Davis have HEAVY overlaps with campus-based talent. Interns, post-doc researchers and faculty all do a lot of work BOTH on campus and outside at startup companies, so providing a no-car / no-parking shuttle that runs with high frequency is really going to be valuable.
How does the existence of retail and restaurants support or hinder companies trying to start up in DiSC?
It’s necessary for the reasons stated above. DiSC needs its own “scene” and it should not be built in the same way that a lot of commercial parks have been built for a long time: spread-out food deserts where you need to get in a car for lunch, coffee, etc. DiSC should look and feel like “Davis’ business district.” A lot of the people who work there will of course make their way downtown for lunch because of the wider array of options in downtown. But if it doesn’t have its own retail and restaurants, then there will be a lot of unnecessary car trips out of DiSC and parking impacts downtown, etc. On-site amenities are an absolute must.
How do you think your own experience working with and assisting startups puts in context the necessity of DiSC’s success?
I have seen SO many companies leave Davis because we don’t have available space for them. Well-funded, successful companies. This is bad for the companies because their talent mostly all lives here in town—and it is bad for the city because we are leaking the economic activity that those companies generate. Being able to retain startup companies in Davis is good for us socially, economically, and environmentally.