Silicon Beach Fest explores the inner workings of the Westside tech scene
By Remy Merritt
Major players and future elite of Silicon Beach — the Westside nexus of technology, entertainment and digital marketing that has become Southern California’s answer to Silicon Valley — are gathering this week in Santa Monica for a networking event that also tracks the evolution of L.A. tech.
The annual Silicon Beach Fest, happening Thursday through Saturday at various downtown-area venues, seeks to connect industry leaders and entrepreneurs with each other and, to some degree, the public.
This year’s festival, featuring a keynote address by L.A. billionaire entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, drills down into three topics that organizer Kevin Winston has identified as trending among local companies: digital video content and marketing, hardware innovations such as 3D printers and wearable technology, and increasing involvement of women in these once male-dominated fields.
Winston, founder of the networking group Digital LA, emphasizes the importance of public showcases to facilitate startup success and has included a pitch-making competition for 25 local companies looking to get their innovations off the ground.
One of these is AIO Robotics — inventor of Zeus, the world’s first all-in-one 3D scan, print and fax machine. Zeus was created last year by three USC engineering graduate students at the school’s Kickstart Garage innovation incubator in Marina del Rey.
Silicon Beach Fest is an opportunity to demonstrate Zeus, nearing production of 60 presold units, to potential investors and customers.
“We have the entire startup culture here and want to give something back, show that we created a product right here in Los Angeles,” said AIO Robotics CEO Jens Windau, 28.
Investment in Silicon Beach companies is off to a record pace this year. According to socaltech.com, Los Angeles tech startups raised at least $620 million in the first five months of 2014 — a nearly 80% jump over the same period the previous year.
Winston’s entrepreneurial journey with Digital LA began in March 2012 when he and his partners were inspired to launch the Westside tech networking event while attending the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
The first Silicon Beach Fest took place just two months later, followed by a one-day version in Hollywood the following year that introduced Winston to numerous related companies thriving throughout L.A.
Since then, Winston has put an emphasis on reexamining and redefining the umbrella of Silicon Beach, an effort also backed by academia and city government.
Peter Marx, chief innovation technology officer for Mayor Eric Garcetti and a keynote speaker for this year’s fest, agrees that the Los Angeles tech industry falls under a much wider net.
“The goal is to focus the city of L.A. on this incredible tech community, but there isn’t just one community. It’s much more about folks getting to identify with Los Angeles, then going out and creating the communities themselves.”
Windau credits the Kickstart Garage with introductions to investors, distributors and colleagues that made the company possible.
The next step is to introduce Zeus, which retails for $2,500, to the mainstream. About the size of a microwave, the device requires no technical knowledge to operate: put an object in the machine, press a button, and a plastic copy can be printed out by any other Zeus machine around the world. Potential applications include facilitating instantaneous 3D communication between designers and clients as well as between home improvement retailers and customers.
The far-reaching applications of pioneering Silicon Beach technologies, said Marx, should be matched by an equal sense of inclusiveness within the industries themselves.
“The reality is that these technologies are used by everybody. I think the way for us to be successful as a technology industry is to be accessible to everyone,” said Marx, also an adjunct professor with the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Andrew Rohm, a professor at Loyola Marymount University’s Institute of Marketing and a Silicon Beach Fest panelist, has experienced firsthand just how attractive tech is becoming for women. He said female students fill around 70% of his classrooms.
“More women than ever are really interested in advertising and branding, whether for the creative side or because they want to dive into the analytics of data tracking and evaluation,” Rohm said.
This year’s Silicon Beach Fest includes four women’s panels — all of which feature female venture capitalists and CEOs who, in Winston’s eyes, are “rocking it.” It is his hope that these panels will spotlight female business pioneers who have stepped into a largely male-dominated arena, as well as create a snowball effect of networking between businesswomen.
In addition to an emphasis on women’s participation, Winston has introduced what he playfully calls a “gadget sandbox.” On Friday afternoon, Silicon Beach Fest is launching its first beach-themed expo for wearable technology, 3D printing and other hardware in response to what Winston considers a current trend of augmented reality.
“New technology and platforms come at such a rapid speed that it is difficult for us on the academic side to keep pace, so we keep students attuned to what’s happening on the ground in Silicon Beach,” Rohm said. Through partnerships with local companies, Rohm teaches that startup success is dependent on “actively listening, monitoring and engaging with customers in an interactive conversational approach.”
While there is strong support for Silicon Beach networking among academia, government and the companies themselves, not everyone is thrilled with the term.
Following a tweet from the mayor’s office using a #SiliconBeach hashtag that wasn’t universally well-received, Marx has started using #techLA.
“Tech is the basis, and everyone is a part of L.A. We limited the term in order to be more inclusive,” Marx said.
Winston is less interested in terminology.
In his view, the moniker “captures what the Bay Area has built with Silicon Valley, but it adds that unique component of what L.A. is all about.”
That, said Winston, and Silicon Beach Fest is “catchier than ‘The LA Tech Fest.’”
Silicon Beach Fest tickets range from $125 to $449. For a schedule of events and locations, visit siliconbeachfest.com.
Editor Joe Piasecki contributed to this report.