Celebrating Irvine Innovators

Irvine is bustling with entrepreneurial zeal with innovators creating world-changing breakthroughs.

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At his Irvine Spectrum office, Marine veteran and Harvard grad Mike LeBlanc designs robots to greet customers for Fortune 500 companies such as FedEx and Slack. The company has already raised $80 million in funding.

Just down the road, Maryam Rofougaran has raised more than $90 million in funding for her breakthrough 5G mobile-phone service technology. Her clients include Qualcomm and Verizon.

And chasing his own entrepreneurial dreams, Dan Ta, at the ripe old age of 23, recently co-founded an online, international farmers market. When Ta chose Irvine as his base, he joined LeBlanc, Rofougaran and hundreds of other innovators – of all ages, at startups and established firms – who recognize the city’s advantages.

“Irvine is an ideal place to start a business,” Ta says. “It’s such a nurturing environment for entrepreneurs – plus, where else could I go where I can hop into a tech meeting in the morning and hit the beaches and surf in the afternoon?”

Bustling with entrepreneurial zeal

As urban centers throughout America struggle to revive their economies after three years of the pandemic, Irvine is bustling with entrepreneurial zeal. A recent WalletHub survey ranked it as California’s best city in which to start a new business.

“The numbers don’t lie: Irvine is a success story,” says Nate Cherry, director of urban planning at the architecture and design firm Gensler. Irvine ranks among the top five California cities according to its sheer number of tech businesses, Cherry says, adding: “It’s really quite amazing. But what best explains it is the lifestyle you can have here. That’s what’s unique about Irvine and what’s drawing all these smart people and businesses.”

The lifestyle is certainly a major attraction. Yet many new innovative companies are also drawn by Irvine’s business hubs, in which large, long-established firms support lively ecosystems of suppliers, spinoffs and newcomers.

Examples include automotive design, spurred by giants Mazda, Lincoln and newcomer Rivian; gaming, surrounding Blizzard Entertainment; medical devices, inspired by Edwards Lifesciences; and most successfully, eye care, due to the longtime presence of Allergan (now part of AbbVie).

A spokesperson for Microsoft, which has an office in Irvine, says having UC Irvine in its backyard “brings fresh perspectives for how to build on our most innovative products.”

Master-planned for success

Undergirding much of what makes Irvine so attractive is the city’s not-so-secret weapon: a visionary Master Plan. The plan created Irvine as a group of self-contained villages with abundant open space and thriving live-work-play communities adjacent to luxury office space, anchored by a world-class university. It’s a particularly welcoming environment for businesses that, in turn, provide a steady stream of tax revenue, sustaining Irvine’s high-performing schools and police.

“Communities around the country see Irvine as the gold standard,” Cherry says. “They are looking at the mixed-use areas, like the Spectrum District, that offer housing, shops, restaurants and next-generation offices that attract innovative companies because everything is at their fingertips.”

Irvine Company, the city’s master planner and long-term property-owner, is also a draw for employers. It actively recruits the world’s leading companies and startups to its office campuses, which it rigorously enhances with cutting-edge amenities.

“Communities around the country see Irvine as the gold standard. They are looking at the mixed‑use areas, like the Spectrum District, that offer housing, shops, restaurants and next‑generation offices that attract innovative companies because everything is at their fingertips.” – Nate Cherry of Gensler, a worldwide architecture and design firm

“Most businesses prefer a long-term owner to be in place,” Matt Anderson, a managing director at the market analysis group Trepp, recently told NBC News. “They’ll come in and maintain a property and do whatever long-term fixes are needed. A short-term owner is going to be less incentivized to do that.”

City leaders embrace innovation

In April, the city advanced the planning of a potential new resource hub to connect local entrepreneurs with investors and industry experts. The project would temporarily occupy a 4,000-square-foot office and coffee shop at the city’s train station.

Considering all of the ways that Irvine’s university, businesses and government support local startups, it’s no wonder the city has achieved the region’s highest jobs-to-workers ratio, plus the fastest job growth in professional services, as UCI researchers recently found.

Launched at UCI

Ta, the co-founder of that online farmers market, discovered some of the many ways Irvine supports entrepreneurs from the first day he arrived on the UCI campus, when he checked out the ANTrepreneur Center.

There, he met like-minded students and benefited from grants from UCI’s Student Startup Fund, logistical support and mentors, and inspiration from local events such as the annual Techstars Startup weekends. Now, he says, he’s eager to give back.

“I hope to be part of the movement to make Irvine’s business culture even stronger and keep and attract all the talent here in SoCal,” Ta says.