California Forum

Viewpoints: Contest could attract and grow the next Google

Last year, the Downtown Sacramento Foundation launched one of the most inspired local projects in recent memory with its “Calling All Dreamers” contest. The foundation partnered with private companies to offer prize packages worth a total of about $200,000 to help budding entrepreneurs launch their dream ventures, with the idea that filling empty storefronts with unique small businesses would make the urban core a more vibrant place.

Last year’s big winner, Andy’s Candy Apothecary, received free rent, cash, marketing services, legal assistance and much more. Now, imagine if we took that same brilliant concept to the next level.

What if we could grow a Google?

You only need to look back to 2005 when we came together in a high-stakes battle to lure the multibillion-dollar California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, also widely known as the stem cell institute.

The agency promised to yield a new biotech boom in whichever city landed it, and the competition was fierce. Sacramento was pitted against Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, Emeryville and San Francisco, all of which offered free rent and other substantial amenities. Emeryville even tempted the selection committee with access to Pixar Animation Studios’ digital theater and gourmet kitchen.

In the end, San Francisco won in what was widely considered to be a predetermined outcome, but Sacramento placed second in the weeks leading up to the final vote. Why? Because private and public interests came together with lightning speed and made big commitments without lengthy debate.

Imagine that.

Developer Angelo Tsakopoulos led the way for Sacramento, offering 10 years of free rent in more than 17,000 square feet of office space at his One Capitol Mall building, along with $800,000 in tenant improvements. The city contributed free parking and meeting space, with discounted hotel rooms. The combined package was estimated at $7.3 million.

And it all happened in a flash. Sacramento’s offer was made within weeks of the city joining the list of candidates.

So what if we came together again to bet on young technology start-ups – the kind that can experience meteoric growth – from this region and across the country? Imagine if we held a national contest where entrepreneurs submitted videos, proposals and business plans, vying for an irresistible prize package.

And like the Dreamers contest, the companies should be ones that capture the public’s imagination. While data centers may be lucrative, if we’re going to generate excitement, the candidates should be consumer-focused technology companies – think social media, video game, mobile device companies, etc. And there should be multiple winners.

For the selection committee, we can assemble a blue-chip team of area business school deans and professors, civic groups like the Metro Chamber and SARTA (the Sacramento Area Regional Technology Alliance, which already successfully nurtures the local tech community), and regional angel investors.

So what can we offer these nascent businesses? We can start with turning our negatives into positives.

In Detroit, burdened with thousands of abandoned homes, a local nonprofit is offering houses for free to creative writers willing to move to the troubled city. The plan is to bolster the city’s literary arts scene one resident at a time.

Sacramento doesn’t have a surfeit of empty houses, but with an office vacancy rate of 21.46 percent in the first quarter of this year (the national average is 14.8 percent), we have plenty of available space. San Francisco, by contrast, has a vacancy rate of 6.1 percent. Offering rent-free space for at least a year is key.

In Las Vegas last year, a local ad agency held a contest offering 1,000 square feet of office space for only $1 a month to tech start-ups, which competed for the space by submitting creative 15-second Instagram videos (the agency planned on one winner but chose two). This year, New York City’s Economic Development Corporation and Columbia University are partnering on their sixth annual “NYC Next Idea” contest, where start-ups from around the world compete annually for six months of free rent, $35,000 in cash, pro bono legal advice, mentoring and more. And in March, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched a nationwide contest to lure 10 tech start-ups per year founded by college students, with a year of free, shared work space (in a concept similar to our own Hacker Lab and Urban Hive) along with mentoring programs.

Here in Sacramento, in addition to free office space, law firms and marketing agencies could pitch in and offer their services, too. Local universities could offer MBA scholarships. Universities know that successful grads can produce generous alums, like KlickNation founder Mark Otero, who sold his video game company to industry giant Electronic Arts, and who has given generously to UC Davis’ Graduate School of Management.

In 2005, we dreamed big. In the end, we failed. Not because we lost to San Francisco and not because we lost the stem cell institute, but because we lost our momentum.

Today, we have a chance to hit the reset button and pool our resources again with an energized, high-profile competition in which both the companies and the city can win.

It’s time to stop dreaming about becoming a technology hotbed and to start coming together to actually make it happen.