Santa Cruz — ‘We’re more Silicon Valley than surfing’

The sign marking U.C. Santa Cruz's extension in Santa Clara reveals the university's broader effort to change its reputation from surfing capital to Silicon Valley institution. (Photo: Rachel Estabrook/Peninsula Press)
The sign marking U.C. Santa Cruz’s extension in Santa Clara reveals the university’s broader effort to change its reputation from surfing capital to Silicon Valley institution. (Photo: Rachel Estabrook/Peninsula Press)

Driving north on Highway 101 through Silicon Valley, it’s tough to know when you’ve actually arrived. There’s no Las Vegas-style sign welcoming drivers to the region despite its international stature.

But about a year ago, a new sign popped up. Just off the highway near Bowers Ave. in Santa Clara, the sign pinpoints the location of UCSC Silicon Valley, an extension of the University of California Santa Cruz.

The physical marker symbolizes a much larger effort to closely align the university and the city of Santa Cruz with the Silicon Valley region. But changing the image of a place known more for parties than particle accelerators is proving hard to do.

When George Blumenthal took the job of UCSC chancellor in 2007, he made regional integration a top priority. He told the San Jose Mercury News to think of UCSC, “as U.C. Silicon Valley.”

That same year, High Times magazine placed UCSC first among U.S. universities as a “counterculture college,” an indication of the challenge Blumenthal faced.

Silicon Valley is more of a mindset than a physical place—a symbol of innovation, entrepreneurship and technological mite. And while it’s become “the world’s best brand name,” according to Russell Hancock, president of the civic group Joint Venture: Silicon Valley, the lack of geographic boundaries means it can be hard to define. “There’s always a race for the cities here in the Bay Area to be part of it,” Hancock said.

Every year Hancock’s group analyzes Silicon Valley’s economy, governance, environment and social indicators. The report covers 40 cities in four counties, and for the first time this year included San Francisco in some of its calculations because the city is attracting more angel and venture capital funding, filing more patents and offering more of the types of software and start-up jobs that have historically been the Valley’s bread and butter. That has prompted other cities to ask more loudly: Why not include us, too?

And Santa Cruz may be the most persistent of all the cities in the Bay Area as it seeks to regain a reputation for science, not surfing.

Gordon Ringold is director of UCSC’s initiatives in Silicon Valley, a position he volunteered for in 2011 after talking with Blumenthal about the school’s public image. Ringold earned his degree from the school in 1972, just seven years after it opened, and built a successful career in biotechnology.

In the early days, he says, UCSC attracted students with higher SAT scores than Stanford. But over the years, that reputation has changed, despite the school’s strengths in science and technology research. Ringold cites UCSC’s contribution to finding the Higgs boson particle, called the “holy grail of physics,” last year as just one example.

Yet, public perception is that “everyone at UCSC goes surfing all the time, which is a remarkable non-truth,” Ringold said. “That’s part of the legacy that we need to overcome.”

Ringold says rebranding the university is not just about status. The University of California system “as a whole needs a presence in Silicon Valley,” said Ringold. “With ever-decreasing state support for public education, and the budget cuts the university system has taken, public universities have to start thinking of themselves more in a fundraising mode.”

In Santa Cruz, he said, “The vegan restaurant is there, and the surf shops are there, but they’re not going to help build your next building.”

The city’s economic development director, Bonnie Lipscomb, says the lack of mature companies staying in Santa Cruz is a source of ongoing frustration. “One of the things we find and that we’d love to reverse is, we have startups that start in Santa Cruz and get angel or investor funding and go over the hill,” to the San Jose area, said Lipscomb. “We’d love to see them grow in Santa Cruz and keep their business in Santa Cruz.”

In 2008, UCSC’s Blumenthal and then-Santa Cruz Mayor Ryan Coonerty brought the city and the school together in a new partnership to “work together on economic development initiatives,” said Lipscomb. Since then, the two have met regularly to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship and turn more of the school’s research into business ventures, a process Lipscomb calls “tech transfers.”

Later this spring, Lipscomb says, representatives of the city and university will travel to Colorado to observe how Boulder and Ft. Collins have gone through similar processes with the public universities in those areas. In Ft. Collins, Lipscomb says, the city and Colorado State University have developed incubators to turn work from the school’s three top research areas into productive businesses.

Lipscomb says many Santa Cruz residents already work in Silicon Valley, and UCSC’s research helps power the region’s economy. So she’s frustrated that Joint Venture, the group of government, business, nonprofit and academic institutions in the area, insists on excluding Santa Cruz from its annual report.

But Hancock, Joint Venture’s president, said, “Frankly we’re not sure that Santa Cruz is part of Silicon Valley. We don’t count the city in our index numbers and we’ve never done that.”

“We attend [the conference] every year, and the chancellor of UCSC sits on the leadership board” for Joint Venture, Lipscomb said. So “it seems bizarre to us that we’re not included.”

One justification for Joint Venture’s decision, Hancock said, is that Santa Cruz is on the other side of a hill. “So, geographically it’s not in the valley.”

Lena Tran, a director at UCSC’s campus in Santa Clara, says geography shouldn’t matter. She points to the greater New York City area and the greater Washington D.C. area as two examples of metropolitan regions that have grown to include surrounding cities, capturing the business and academic resources they offer. Unlike in the areas around D.C. and New York, though, Santa Cruz is not linked to Silicon Valley by public transportation, which has held the university back.

“Public transport is not available and there’s not business in between” San Jose and Santa Cruz, “and that’s why it’s considered a different area,” she said.

But Lipscomb says the city is less concerned with improving transportation than it was in the past, since technological advances have made physical proximity less important. “Where we’re focusing our efforts on in the next 10 years would be advances in technology and fiber that would make Santa Cruz more attractive. We’re looking at regional broadband policies, digital-first policies. We’re looking at ways we can position Santa Cruz going forward.”

Meanwhile, UCSC wants to continue its penetration into the physical space of Silicon Valley. Ringold wants to deepen the school’s partnership with NASA just as a 10-year research contract between the two institutions ends, including building a research campus; expand graduate degree programs offered at UCSC’s Santa Clara extension in engineering and technology management; and strengthen relationships with companies in Silicon Valley.

Tran said UCSC would benefit greatly from being thought of as an integral part of Silicon Valley. The university could “work with companies and provide our students with research topics and internships,” as well as jobs after graduation. Access to venture funding is also crucial. “How does Stanford get all the companies to attend their incubators?” Tran asked .

Officials say the university could benefit from recruiting students, particularly from outside California. “If you talk to someone from the East about all our programs in entrepreneurship and innovation,” Tran said, “you’ve got to be where all the players are” to get attention. She points to the university’s highly rated graduate program in game design—an industry headquartered in the Valley. “Do you know any computer gaming company in Santa Cruz?”

Ringold says the goal is to have a “mini-campus,” not to “replicate [UCSC’s] undergraduate campus on this side of the hill.” He envisions graduate programs in specialized areas of science and technology that will complement and “partner with Stanford and Berkeley in a lot of ways,” Ringold said. “We can help each other, but they’re not going to help us if we’re not credible, if we don’t bring something to the party.”

Being known as a school that brings something to the party has not been UCSC’s problem. Figuring out how to change that perception long-term is.

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