Six years ago, Ali Sina invested his life savings to create Insolar, which uses artificial intelligence to facilitate sales of solar power. He followed that up by developing Stealth Ventures, which has helped launch more than 300 new AI companies.
Sina has something fundamental in common – call it moxie – with Kurt Busch, the founder of Syntiant, which makes processors that deploy AI in everything from earbuds to automobiles. Syntiant has raised $120 million from investors, including Microsoft and Intel.
This breed of ambition is just one reason why Irvine is well-prepared to benefit from the latest industrial revolution, say information-technology experts. Other advantages include a young, educated workforce, a computer-savvy school system and a high-tech business climate that welcomes innovative startups.
“Irvine has done a great job of creating a culture of entrepreneurship and innovative thinking so that you’re incentivized to take some positive risks,” says “Own the AI Revolution” author Neil Sahota, a United Nations adviser on artificial intelligence.
Quality public schools make a difference
Many Irvine residents are graduates of local schools that focus on building early skills in information technology.
Sina, a serial entrepreneur whose many Irvine startups offer student internships focused on AI innovation, says he’s seen a “jaw-dropping” level of STEM-related smarts, skill and ambition among applicants.
“They’re super-competitive,” he says. “And by the time they’re in high school, a lot are more advanced than many first- or second-year college students.”
Irvine’s relative youth – the median age is 33.8 years, nearly five years below the national average – contributes to the excitement about the growing industry, says Dean Stoecker, the founder and former CEO of Alteryx, a multibillion-dollar Irvine-based global software company.
“We’re at a critical point now where AI is proliferating throughout almost every industry.” – Kristine Collins, UCI
“The next generation of data workers is focused on AI and not afraid at all to use it,” Stoecker says.
Irvine educators say they’re working to help the local labor force embrace AI’s challenges, including a predicted major shift in the jobs of tomorrow.
“We’re at a critical point now where AI is proliferating throughout almost every industry,” says UC Irvine Dean of Continuing Education Kristine Collins.
In 2017, her division launched its first AI-focused courses – highly technical classes for people working in the industry. Today, Collins says, new courses and workshops are being developed for “learners with no prior knowledge of generative AI and individuals who need to upskill or reskill for their profession.”
Local companies embrace new technology
There’s no understating the speed of the growth of generative AI – that is, algorithms such as Chat GPT – that create new content. The tools date back to the 1960s but gained steam in June 2020 with the release of GPT-3. Less than one year later, nearly one-fourth of more than 1,600 business leaders who responded to a McKinsey Global Survey, published in August, said they were “regularly” using AI at work, while 40% said their organizations planned to increase their AI investments.
These trends may be growing even faster in Irvine and Orange County, thanks to industries especially eager to adopt the new strategies, including medical technology, gaming, aerospace and electric vehicles.
“There is no one in industry leadership throughout Orange County who is not experimenting with AI or doesn’t have some core project involving it,” says Stoecker at Alteryx, which has been using AI for several years. “In fact, a lot of companies have FOMO – the fear of missing out on the AI promise – so they are spending a ton of money on it.”