UC Davis and Area 52, a recently formed nonprofit, are collaborating on a new technology business incubator for the Davis-Sacramento region. Area 52’s incubator facility will be the second off-campus member of the university’s Distributed Research Incubation & Venture Engine (DRIVE™) Network.
The shared goal is to create a workspace that provides the necessary resources for young companies looking to transform an idea into a product, especially in the areas of medical devices, agricultural technology, alternative energy, robotics and aerospace.
Tim Keller MBA 08 is the man behind this mission. A veteran entrepreneur who believes that the U.S. needs to actively invest in the manufacturing sector, Keller conceived the “heavy incubator” concept to meet this need. Area 52 will be a combination of a business incubator, extremely well equipped makerspace and technical training center. With resources for businesses and also access to tools, training, and talented engineers and fabricators, a young manufacturing company will have low-cost access to everything it needs to get to market and set up shop locally—without outsourcing manufacturing overseas.
Keller earned a BS in viticulture and enology at UC Davis, took first prize in the 2008 Big Bang! Business Competition as an MBA student, and then applied his background in the wine industry and his passion for entrepreneurship to found VinPerfect Inc. based on his invention. The SmartCap™ delivers precise oxygen control for wine bottles. Keller continues to serve at the company’s CTO and sits on its board.
Adding value to the region’s economy
Familiar with the process of turning a promising idea for a new product into a successful business, Keller is now looking to create a resource to help others succeed.
“Area 52 is the only business incubator that is focused on building manufacturing companies—by which I mean companies that actually build their product themselves,” he explained. “ There are lots of incubators for software, and the few hardware incubators that I have come across all want to automatically outsource the manufacturing to China. We are combining the fabrication skills with the ideas and the tools so that we can create and retain manufacturers as part of our local economy.
“Developing a tangible product is so much harder than developing a piece of software, because the costs of development are so high and because it is near impossible to find funding to create a product until you have built it,” said Keller. “What we are developing is something unique that allows manufacturing companies to get to the investable stage much sooner, and for less money. Partnering with UC Davis allows us to develop a long-term, sustainable and highly innovative manufacturing sector here in Northern California.”
Construction on the 36,000 square-foot Area 52 facility began in March. When complete, it will include 20 offices, two wet labs, a fully equipped machine shop, composites shop, computer lab, two conference rooms, a gym and a café area for events and classes—all within walking distance of the UC Davis campus.
The building is owned by Sierra Energy, a waste gasification company also founded out of the Big Bang! Business Competition. The renewable energy headquarters is investing more than $1 million in renovations for the facility and will occupy a portion of the building separate from the incubator space.
Mike Hart, CEO of Sierra Energy and a judge in this year’s Big Bang!, said, “We have seen an opportunity to make a real difference in the region’s economy and we are taking it. People will be building new things and will have everything they need to turn those ideas into companies that can stay here in our community for the long term.”
In a serendipitous coincidence, Keller’s connection with Sierra Energy goes back to his graduate business student days, when he completed a year-long internship in strategic business development for the then-young company.
“A place to work, design, develop, innovate”
Area 52 is currently signing up tenants seeking “a creative and fun place to work, design, develop and innovate,” said Keller. When it opens doors later this year, it will provide these university and local entrepreneurs economical office/lab space or the option to purchase memberships to access the workshop space. Keller also expects to offer programs to students wanting to learn and develop high-tech skills.
“We’re excited at the potential our collaboration with Area 52 and Sierra Energy will afford for UC Davis and regional startups to access high-quality engineering technology and medtech business incubation facilities and resources so close to campus,“ said Dushyant Pathak, associate vice chancellor of technology management and corporate relations, and executive director of Venture Catalyst at UC Davis. “Once in full swing, this facility with its advanced manufacturing and engineering tools, will complement the UC Davis–HM.CLAUSE Life Science Innovation Center, which provides incubation facilities for university-affiliated startups in the biopharmaceutical, diagnostics, agtech and related fields.”
Managed by the Venture Catalyst, a unit in the UC Davis Office of Research, the DRIVE network provides UC Davis-affiliated startups with access to affordable, mixed office/lab business incubation spaces in close proximity to campus. Companies accepted into the DRIVE network have access to support resources offered by Venture Catalyst, including a suite of services provided through the Smart Toolkit for Accelerated Research Translation (START™) Program, designed to equip UC Davis entrepreneurs with the tools they need to form and grow successful companies.
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