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Where the Geniuses Are
Ben Christopher | Photo: Ellen Zaslow | April 1, 2013
From tech to design, and even politics, here's 18 of the Bay Area's most influential hubs of collaboration.
You say “incubator,” we say “accelerator.” You say “silo-busting cross-pollination,” we say “working together.” Whatever you call it, the collaboration ethos has become the default Bay Area way of doing almost everything. Argue if you will about their ranking, but agree on this: The 18 hubs listed in the slideshow above and the text below are the biggest, influence-wise, of a wildly disruptive bunch.
(1) Y Combinator
Among the multitude of Bay Area tech accelerators, Y Combinator is the Death Star. In eight years, this Mountain View powerhouse, with its three-month seed program and demo day extravaganzas, has pretty much changed how companies are launched. Its list of alums reads like the bookmark tab on your laptop browser: Reddit, Dropbox, Airbnb, Codecademy, and many more.
If multi-disciplinary problem solving has a father, his name is David Kelley, founder of the crazy-prolific Ideo and now head of the d.school (as the Institute of Design at Stanford is universally known). Here, grad students collaborate on projects (a “smart” intravenous bag, an insulated sleeping bag for premature babies), and outside organizations from Google to the Girl Scouts come to incorporate “design thinking” into their day-to-day.
(3) S.F. Writers’ Grotto
Before incubators started incubating, before shared work spaces became a hallmark of the tech savvy freelancer class, there was the Grotto. What began in 1994 as six writers scribbling away in a Castro apartment has blossomed into the city’s preeminent lit brand/hub, with luminaries past and present (Mary Roach, Po Bronson), classes, fellowships, and, this April, a writers’ conference in Calistoga.
What happens when you invite some of the greatest minds in biology, computer science, chemistry, and physics to the same facility and mix them up to do biomedical miracle work? Some damn cool discoveries, it turns out: Innovations from this bioscience center at Stanford include an artificial cornea, a breath mint–size microscope, and light-controlled brain cells.
Inspired by hackerspaces in Europe and mentor to DIYers around the Bay Area, noisebridge is the collaborative spirit run amok, in a good way. The Mission street facilities include an electronics lab, a machine shop, a library, and a darkroom—and that’s just a start. Whether you’re recording an album, learning to play Go, or building a mind-controlled robot, someone here really wants to help.
(6) Citizen Engagement Lab
Sometimes the netroots need a little Miracle-Gro. Founded in 2006, the Berkeley-based accelerator CEL has played technical, managerial, and legal sensei to a dozen nascent hacktivist groups (presente.org, colorofchange, Getequal), making it one of the most important upstart political organizations you’ve never heard of.
(7) The 5M Project
5M (short for Fifth and Mission) is the creative heart of the city—at least, that’s the vision of founder Alexa Arena. If all goes according to plan, what’s now a network of community event spaces and shared work studios in and around the Chronicle building will expand into a four-acre live-work complex for artists, artisans, techies, foodies, nonprofitistas, and anyone else interested in remaking SoMa.
(8) The QB3 Garages
QB3, the mammoth UC life science research institute, has taken the Steve Jobs approach to innovation by launching its own proverbial garages—five, actually, including spaces at Cal and in Mission Bay. These incubators give biotech startups like endoorthopaedics (quest: a new way to heal bone fractures) the money and space needed to become the apple of keeping you alive.
If we are ever to kick the fossil fuel habit, we’re going to need better batteries. With access to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory space and gobs of financing, calcharge is an accelerator (putting energy-storage developers into state-of-the-art facilities), a networker (linking researchers from disparate fields), and a professional-education program (teaming up with San Jose State to launch Battery University), all in one.
(10) La Cocina
If only operating a successful food business were as simple as knowing a few good recipes. Since 2005, La Cocina has been helping aspiring bakers, chefs, and restaurateurs navigate the rest of the requirements. Unlike its counterparts in the tech industry, this is an incubator with a social mission, directing most of its resources and expertise toward women of color from low income communities.
This is an organization that does, in fact, wear a lot of hats. A venture fund with a downtown “innovation lab” (think a big, open office with plenty of in-house experts to share among the sponsored startups), the Hattery has also played an outsize role in policy—its cofounder, Josh Mendelsohn, runs the political advocacy nonprofit engine and hosts civic improvement hackathons like the Muni-focused Reroute/SF.
In the tech industry, it’s often hard to distinguish between a geeky guy with a MacBook and the next social media tycoon. Likewise, while rocketspace may look like any other SoMa office building, it’s actually a vast startup hub, housing more than 130 tech companies (Spotify, to name one), connecting newcomers to mentors and technical experts, and playing the role of downtown programmer community center.
(13) Imagine K12
Tim Brady, Alan Louie, and Geoff Ralston are big honchos of the first tech boom (Yahoo, Google, and Yahoo, respectively). They are also dads worried about the state of the state’s schools. their solution: an “edtech” startup incubator á la Y Combinator that also serves as a meeting place for programmers and tech-savvy educators (teacher-in-residence included).
(14) The Hive
From the outside, it isn’t much to look at: two Victorians that share a courtyard in the Mission. But to those in the know, the Hive is a center of the tech intelligentsia: a hackathoning, heavy drinking youth hostel–meets–think tank. Collaborations born there include the skycam, a cheap surveillance drone designed for journalists in East Africa, and—fittingly enough— couchsurfing.org.
In 2009, a group of amateur biotech enthusiasts and moonlighting lab pros started meeting secretly in garages around the peninsula. After a few years of being mistaken by neighbors for meth cookers, the biohackers went legit by renting out a fully equipped lab. For $100 a month, you can take a class in genetic engineering, launch your startup, or have a stab at curing cancer.
(16) The Ground Floor
Dramaturge Madeleine Oldham compares the Berkeley Rep’s two-year-old incubator/lab, which she directs, to venture capitalism. By supporting a bunch of small, unconventional projects while they’re still in the crazy-idea stage, the rep keeps the creative juices going—and its theatrical pipeline flowing.
(17) Matter Ventures
A brand-new joint project of KQED and the journalism-focused Knight Foundation, Matter gives six teams of would-be media moguls 50 grand and puts them through a four-month accelerator program/“entrepreneurship boot camp.” The freshman class includes openwatch (free tools for investigative reporting) and Zeega (interactive storytelling for the post-blog era).
(18) Makeshift Society
Finally, says founder Rena Tom, there’s a coworking hub for people who make something besides apps: a place where copywriters, photographers, journalists, designers, and artists can swim in the same creative ecosystem. By serving as a work space, a lecture hall, and an event space, the Hayes Valley–based Makeshift has become what Tom calls a “one-stop shop for freelancers.”