Q&A: Andy Wilson, Alliance for SoCal Innovation, Reflects on 2019

A rising tide lifts all boats. The Alliance for SoCal Innovation is dedicated to unifying and elevating the visibility of the entire SoCal innovation ecosystems, which includes the individual ecosystems of OC, LA and SD. This interview with Andy Willson, managing director of the alliance, with HQ in Pasadena, was published originally by SoCalTech, with whom OCSN has a partnership….

What was the biggest news for you/your company this year?

The Alliance is following the classic start-up trajectory: transition from the big idea to your beachhead product offering. While 2018 was all about better understanding the SoCal opportunity, 2019 was about honing our focus and defining our core programs. Though the Alliance is still committed to hosting select regional convenings like First Look SoCal and our SoCal Ecosystem Leadership Conference, we recognize that the region already is filled with numerous events targeted at start-ups and entrepreneurs. Instead, we will focus on helping high potential start-up communities like DTLA and Riverside gain momentum, connecting the fourteen SoCal start-up communities into a vibrant network and working with top corporations like Edison and Kaiser get more integrated into the robust and diverse SoCal innovation ecosystem. So in short, the Alliance is moving beyond the big idea of strengthening SoCal innovation to defined programs that can move the ecosystem in a more targeted manner.

What new technology area, startup, service, or app did you find most interesting or useful this year, and why?

The progress we have seen with renewable energy over the last decade is staggering. It is hard to believe the cost of solar has dropped by ⅔ while efficiency has more than doubled such that it is now comparable (some would say cheaper) to traditional fossil fuels. However green energy is often dependent on Mother Nature to make the sun shine, the wind blow and the currents flow. So while these sources now account for 17% of the US power supply (predominantly still hydro and wind), renewables will never fully realize their potential without better scale energy storage solution (for those who track the space, you know despite huge investments in battery technology they are still both expensive and bulky at commercial scale). Given my fascination with this sector (I also happen to serve on the board of a municipal utility), I have watched with great curiosity an Idealab portfolio company Energy Vault (initially named Energy Cache) evolve over the last decade. The start-up has developed kinetic energy based, long-duration energy storage solutions. I recall one of their early approaches relying on transporting rocks up a hill on a chair lift. Needless to say, the latest incarnation has come a long way and looks particularly promising. Its current solution is the terrestrial version of pumped hydro storage and uses a robotic crane to stack composite bricks to create an “energy” tower. It is amazing how the application of basic physics can create an energy storage system that has 80 – 90% efficiency.

Energy Vault has recently attracted a lot of attention including >$100m from Cemex Ventures and Softbank (of course in today’s climate that might not be the stamp of approval that it was 6 months ago) and apparently has a promising pipeline of commercial customers. It is exciting to imagine how this technology or ones like it might drive renewables forward.

What was the biggest lesson you learned this year?

The Alliance engages the full set of ecosystem players; from start-ups, to VC’s, to universities, to local governments and more. While all these players are eager to see our SoCal ecosystem develop, some are too heads-down (early stage start-ups) while others have highly diverse priorities (universities). However, innovation-driven corporations often have the urgency to act (or risk losing market share, relevance, etc) and resources to deploy. While not usually as nimble as a small start-up, corporations can pivot to take advantage of opportunities to engage if they see a return on investment. Furthermore, if we can get these platform companies to lean-in, they bring significant resources that are vital to moving the massive SoCal ecosystem. We have a number of exciting collaborations in the works with Edison, Kaiser, Warner Bros., Verizon, and Wells Fargo just to mention a few. These corporate leaders know that innovation matters, and they often prefer to engage in their own backyards. The Alliance is in a unique position to help move their respective strategic innovation agendas forward by guiding them to effectively engage in the diverse SoCal ecosystem. Look for a number of important announcements from the Alliance on this front in 2020.

What are you most looking forward to in the technology/startup world in 2020?

As you might expect, our perspective is mostly focused on where we see the ecosystem going in 2020. We see a growing sense of regional collaboration. A few years ago, there was still a sense of competition between various start-up communities, but this sentiment has been replaced by a sense that we are stronger together. This came through loud and clear at our recent regional leadership conference. Also we see great potential in the efforts of InSoCal (facilitated by Octane in OC) to coordinate a pan-regional series of marquis innovation programming in early 2020. While we are very much impressed by the capabilities of individual communities, we and others have come to realize that we can only compete globally if we work together as an integrated region. We are optimistic that these early efforts will only continue to accelerate next year.

We believe there is growing momentum in big exits that will both validate the region but also inject more risk capital/risk mindset into the region. This is accompanied by a recent surge in the formation of local mid-stage venture funds. See the recent pitch book article for more details. Not to sound like the regional cheerleaders we are, but we are bullish that 2020 will be a banner year for start-ups/tech in SoCal.

Andy Wilson is the Executive Director of the Alliance for SoCal Innovation. Previously, he ran a venture capital fund (Momentum Ventures) and founded several SoCal tech startups.

About The Author

Deirdre Newman is a long-time journalist, who's covered OC startups for a few years.

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