Four Cal Poly Grads Explain Why San Luis Obispo Is A Hub For Startups

Sidney Collin, founder of De Oro Devices.

By Laura Maranta

What does it take to start a company or small business? Some answers that come to mind: innovative leaders, community, capital and investments, and a great location. It turns out many of these key ingredients exist here on the Central Coast. 

Over the last decade, the Central Coast has seen a swell of entrepreneurship, partly thanks to Cal Poly, support programs from the University’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) and its Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Some proof of the region’s success: multiple companies were listed in Inc. Magazine’s 2019 list of “5000 Fastest Growing Companies in America.” 

 “Our Community has proven its support of startups,” says CIE Executive Director, John Townsend, of the local startup scene’s success. “Silicon Valley is still the Mecca. But we have a good thing going. We’re a great place to live and our best days lie ahead.”

Townsend’s advice to those considering starting a business here: “You can do it. You won’t be alone. You don’t have to sacrifice the success of your company by also having an incredibly high quality of life. There is a strong community of others like you that are doing the same thing. You’ll look back some number of years from now and say it was one of the smartest decisions you made.” 

We asked some local companies from various industries and at different stages of development to share their perspective on the startup scene on the Central Coast and San Luis Obispo. These entrepreneurs, all graduates of Cal Poly, have taken advantage of what the region and surrounding community have to offer. 

Wilde House Paper (2015)

Megan Heddinger, Founder + Creative Director | Graphic Communication, 2014

Connor Drechsler, Business Development | Math, 2015

Wilde House paper is a lifestyle stationary company offering a variety of products including art prints, notebooks, calendars, cards, and more. The company offers wholesale products and an in-house design studio for custom projects. Most recently, Wilde House Paper opened a store front on Monterey Street near Downtown San Luis Obispo.

CIE Programs: SBDC

“Connor Drechsler and I started Wilde House Paper in Costa Mesa, California. Moving [back] to SLO was one of the best decisions that we could have ever made. The city offers so many amazing resources like the SBDC that we are a part of. There are a lot of driven people here looking to create cool things, which is a constant inspiration for us. We loved the idea of being able to connect with a smaller artisan community as well as tap into all of the talent that is encompassed in the students here. Some people still see it as “abnormal” to start a business on the Central Coast, especially within the lifestyle category that we find ourselves in. Followers of our brand always think that we are based out of SF or LA because of our aesthetic, but are always pleasantly surprised to find us paving our own path here on the Central Coast. Community is one of the biggest pulls to SLO for us. Not only feeling supported from a community of locals who genuinely value “shopping small” but also from a community of other small business owners who are willing to help where needed! Once the space we currently occupy on Monterey popped up, we knew that this was a perfect next step for us to grow and integrate into the SLO community. Being an e-commerce brand, we love being able to have a physical space that people can come to and experience the brand in real life.” —Megan Heddinger

Flume Water (2015)

Eric Adler, Co-founder + CEO | Mechanical Engineering, 2015

James Fazio, Co-founder + CTO | Software Engineering, 2015

Jeffrey Hufford, Co-founder | Electrical Engineering, 2015

Flume Water helps homeowners save water, money, and protect their home by providing real-time water-use information. The product consists of a sensor, bridge and an app to provide homeowners with cost-saving statistics. Flume Water began as a senior project inspired by California’s drought crisis.

CIE Programs: Innovation Quest, HotHouse Accelerator, HotHouse Incubator, SBDC, HotHouse Annex Coworking

The whole idea for Flume was to help customers understand in real time how water is being used in their home. Me and my two co-founders decided to take it on as a senior project, and we were very fortunate that the engineering college actually allowed a project like this to go through. One of the main things [about SLO] is that it’s affordable. Everything is double the price in San Francisco, employees are twice as expensive, housing is twice as expensive. Having the expenses much lower in SLO makes starting a business easier because you have to raise less capital. And of course people love being in SLO. I think one of the best parts about SLO is we have Cal Poly. Our entire customer support team is Cal Poly interns. The other valuable piece is those people who graduated from Cal Poly 20 years ago. A lot of them are really successful and have been CEOs at their own companies and they want to reinvest back in the community and help grow companies. And there are other community members who don’t have the capital to do that, so they help in other ways, with mentorship or advising roles. Maybe they have been in startups before and they have all this experience they are willing to share and we see all this experience through advisors we have had at the company. We’ve benefited from all of that.” —Eric Adler

Cloud Pathfinder Consulting LLC (2017)

Jesse Grothaus, Founder + CEO  | Econ, 2014

Cloud Pathfinder Consulting is a group of Salesforce Consultants helping small businesses achieve their dreams through Salesforce implementation, administration, and consulting. The company has a mission to employ military-connected individuals who understand what teamwork is truly about. While most of the employees are working remotely, the company headquarters and CEO are located in San Luis Obispo. 

CIE Programs: SBDC 

“I was living in the Central Valley when I started my company, but I knew that the end goal for me was always to get back to the Central Coast. So, I started my company with the expectation that hopefully this would allow me the freedom to move back to San Luis Obispo and within about a year or so it did. I’ve been here since 2007 but [the startup scene] did not exist in 2007 and it is surprising to see how it has grown over the last couple of years. It makes sense the more you think about it. You’ve got the Orfalea College of Business, you’ve got the Cal Poly College of Engineering, you’ve got the HotHouse, the SBDC, and we are just one region south of the Bay Area. When you start thinking about all those things together, it’s inevitable that there’ll be some great spillover here from the startup scene of the Bay Area. There have also been more and more coworking spaces opening, which I think is really helpful for this area. I think that’s actually one of the biggest challenges of starting up any kind of company—real estate. Coworking spaces are a big way that the community helps out. Since moving here, I don’t have a commute and there’s no traffic. People don’t realize what kind of effect that has on your ability as an entrepreneur. It’s little things like that that SLO has to offer, which kind of have this cumulative effect. As a founder your head needs to be in a certain flow state. It’s hard to do that when the boring stuff of life is weighing you down, that typical hustle and bustle, and that hurried lifestyle. When it’s gone it lets you stay in a much better headspace that lets you focus on building your company in a more thoughtful way. If I was still anywhere else, I don’t think I’d be able to do that like I can here.” —Jesse Grothaus

De Oro Devices (2018)

Sidney Collin, Co-Founder + CEO | Biomedical Engineering, 2019

William Thompson, Co-Founder | Psychology, 2012 + MBA, 2018

De Oro Devices is developing creative technology to improve the quality of life of those in need. Their first product, NexStride, is designed to help Parkinson’s patients. 

CIE Programs: The Hatchery, Innovation Sandbox, Innovation Quest, HotHouse Accelerator, HotHouse Incubator, HotHouse Annex, SBDC and Angel Conference

“I think [the entrepreneurship scene here] is much more collaborative than it is anywhere else that I’ve seen. There’s a lot of community support here, not only from people who are involved with the startup scene but also from the rest of the community. In addition to that, the CIE and SBDC provide a great number of resources that I’m not sure other organizations or small business development centers really give to their constituents. I am on the board of the REACH (Regional Economic Action Coalition) and the reason that they wanted me to be involved in that is because they see a key amount of economic development coming from startups starting and growing on the Central Coast and creating jobs here. Everything is integrated into setting one common goal for the economic success of the county and being able to use all of the resources available to do that. I think that’s important. So having startups be involved in that mission and be involved in what the plan looks like going forward is crucial in terms of being able to provide more high paying jobs.” —Sidney Collin