Pharos Center for Innovation Connects Entrepreneurs
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Ventura County business and nonprofit executives have teamed up to create “spontaneous collisions” for entrepreneurs at the Pharos Center for Innovation in Camarillo.
Named for the lighthouse at the library of Alexandria, the center pools the efforts of tech futurists, startup accelerators, educators and nonprofit powerhouses to grow the region’s economy and work to solve problems not addressed by traditional business and nonprofit models.
On a Friday afternoon, longtime business owners, techies and engineers rubbed elbows with entrepreneurs and recent transplants to Ventura County as they sipped favorite local brews. Down the hall, other conference spaces held people on laptops chipping away at their startup ideas while, at the back of the building, mainstays of the region’s nonprofit community shared office space.
Projected on the back wall, the name of the new business development collaborative drew people in for the informal networking event like the lighthouse for which it was named.
It’s the physical manifestation of a social network, said Sean Bhardwaj, CEO and founder of Aspire 3 and one of the founding team members at the Pharos Center.
Conceived in conjunction with the Ventura County Community Foundation, tech think tank Matter Labs, and the Economic Development Collaborative, the organization serves to centralize resources and drive awareness and access for the entrepreneurs seeking them.
Partners to date include city and county governments, regional small businesses, CSU Channel Islands, the Ventura County Community College District and the Ventura County Office of Education, among others. The co-working space is a tenant of the Ventura County Community Foundation Center at 4001 Mission Oaks Blvd. in Camarillo.
Members can run the gamut from not even having an idea for a business all the way through business launch, scaling or innovating within an existing organization with a new product or revamped program, Bhardwaj said, including people who wouldn’t traditionally think of themselves as entrepreneurs.
“The nonprofit sector, for example, is one that has a lot of innovation and a lot of people doing passionate work and have limited resources,” he said. “There’s actually a lot of overlap in terms of what a nonprofit has to do and what a startup has to do … We’re looking at what causes startups to succeed and how we can teach it to them in a de-jargonized way. Both for-profits and nonprofits are in need of those best practices.”
Pharos had its soft launch in early December, offering mentorship and consulting to participants on an as-needed basis, and plans to launch its own accelerator program in the fall of 2018. From its inception, it was meant to be results-driven, said Bryan Went, director of Matter Labs, who along with his brother Erick Went was part of the founding team.
In its first few months of operations, the center has already drawn $1.5 million to startups and ventures in the county, and is on track to bring in $10 million more in 2019.
Around 100 organizations have joined on as partners, and 20 startups have been created, employing more than 30 people.
“For-profit, nonprofit, late-stage, early stage, no idea, little idea — we’re trying to be the end-all, be-all community resource for techies and entrepreneurs,” Went said. “It’s just us, so we don’t have to answer to anybody except the community.”
In addition to being in the same building as the EDC and the VCCF, the location offered office space and flexible, movable hangout and conference rooms. As it continues discussions with potential service providers, the focus has been on finding the right partners to build out the space for coworking and startup incubation, as well as determining how each regional group can best contribute resources ranging from funding to expertise and everything in between.
As partnerships start to formalize, the team aims to bring the “forefront of innovation on the technology side as well,” Went said.
It also plans to launch EDC Invest, connecting entrepreneurs with a nationwide network of more than 200 investors and providing experts in related fields to provide a score for their business models.
In partnering with Pharos, EDC is able to extend its entrepreneurship and business development efforts and develop underutilized intellectual property, said CEO Bruce Stenslie, who summarized the mission perhaps the most succinctly:
“We make connections for the purpose of solving problems,” Stenslie said, adding that the center can function through multiple business models.
“This is really a collective, which is what makes it possible for everybody to belong to it,” said Vanessa Bechtel, executive director of the VCCF. “It’s not about the space, it’s about the people coming together. The most important part is about driving those connections and those relationships … All of us here are completely committed to growing the economy” in the region.