Silicon Beach: Where sun and surf meet start-ups

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Frank Gehry’s Chiat/Day building is now home to Google. Photo by IK’s World Trip, via Flickr

In the western part of Los Angeles County known as “Silicon Beach”, there’s a race for space.  Space, as in ether. As in technology companies that utilize broadband to incubate, inform and – yes, it is L.A. – entertain.  And space, as in location to put all those companies.  With nearly 620 startup tech firms, mainly on the Westside – according to Represent L.A. – the heat is on to gobble up ideas, talent and real estate. The concerted effort is paying off. But not fast enough for some folks.

If you do a web search of Silicon Beach – or really, any term with the word silicon in it – you’ll see Southern California hasn’t been alone in its geographic quest to create a technology hub.

“So you had all the silicon wannabes,” said Rohit Shukla, chief executive officer of the Larta Institute, formerly the Los Angeles Regional Technology Alliance. “Silicon Desert, Silicon Sands, Silicon Prairie, Silicon Alley in New York.” The Larta Institute was set up in the early 1990s to combat what Shukla calls a full assault on California’s aerospace and tech industry.  Thousands and thousands of jobs moved, he says, to states with more political clout.

And as the state’s technology sector in Silicon Valley went on its rollercoaster ride of the 1990s – from bubble to bust to rocket-like boom again – he thought tech in Southern California was ready for its close-up. “I said, ‘well, if you wanna call us something, call us Silicone Beach.’ Because of course this is the world center for breast implants.”  Of course, Shukla was joking. Sort of. But he did imagine – like a lot of people – a world of technology, in the greatest city on earth for entertainment.  And more specifically, an area that spans Santa Monica, Venice, Culver City and a host of other areas close to greater L.A.’s beaches.

Evan and Gregg Spiridellis, co-founders of JibJab (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

That was the allure for Gregg Spiridellis, of Brooklyn, New York, whose upstart company JibJab makes satirical videos, was looking for a new home. “Coming out here and meeting companies in L.A., and staying on the couch of my friends who lived in Hermosa Beach, you get a really nice feeling for a city.  And you know, when everyday, you wake up and the sun is shining and you don’t have to throw on seven layers of clothes just to walk two blocks to get to a muddy, slushy subway, it gives you kind of a brighter demeanor on life.”

So Gregg, along with his brother Evan, packed up a U-Haul and headed west. They set up shop in Venice in 1999 and never looked back.  In 2004, JibJab hit it big when they produced “This Land,” a political gem about that year’s presidential election between George Bush and John Kerry. The animated video went viral before we even knew what viral was.

These days, JibJab is focusing on everything from dancing e-cards to fun instructional videos called ‘StoryBots,’ which target school-aged kids.  A far cry, Evan Spiridellis says, from the days of their early displacement. “The only thing we did know about where we were gonna land was, ‘we’re going to the beach, and we’re not gonna have a commute to wherever it is we were,'” he said. “Those were the two rules.”

And that, says digital marketer Jesse Bouman, could be what’s holding the Los Angeles tech scene back. A perception that LA is all about being chill, or riding up the PCH with the top down. “The people here work really hard, and the people in the industry know what they’re doing,” Bouman said. “People outside of LA tech might associate all the entrepreneurs who would rather party or go to the beach than stay up all night coding products.”

Bouman runs Demeter Interactive here in L.A. He says the local tech scene is still relatively new compared to Silicon Valley. “We’re still getting our feet wet. We’re figuring things out. There’s a lot more excitement in Silicon Beach, but as far as real large successes in the tech scene, we haven’t accomplished that until L.A. produces a large flagship tech company, it’s still going to be in the middle of the pack,” he said.

When he says flagship company, Bouman says he’s talking about a billion dollar company at least.

For Rohit Shukla, Silicon Beach – and L.A.’s tech sector as a whole – has come a long way. And is developing into something even more valuable, and more indigenous to the region, than its Bay-area namesake.

“The difference is that this is a far more complex and far more in many ways creative – in terms of a distributor creativity – area than Silicon Valley is,” Shukla said. “Which is generally speaking, geared toward a uni-dimensional, perfectly wonderful, valuable, important – vital even – sector of the economy. Where Southern California spans a whole bunch of them. And has a fairly storied history in the area of entertainment and engineering and how those two come together.”

If that sounds like a Hollywood ending, well, let’s say Hollywood beginning.