Where to Be an Entrepreneur

San Diego, CA

The Proactivist: San Diego

When the military started downsizing its bases in the San Diego area two decades ago, the city knew its main economic pillar was crumbling. But instead of bracing itself for the economic impact, San Diego decided to do something about it. The city invested heavily in the idea of technology transfer between the region's high-caliber research labs, like the Scripps Research Institute, and its entrepreneurial community. Today, that idea is paying dividends. San Diego is flush with startups creating everything from solar panels to gene therapies. Powered by strong biotech, clean-tech and cellular technology clusters, along with its traditional defense contractors, a healthy tourism market and a busy port, the city has transformed itself from a one-trick town into a diverse entrepreneurial market. "When status quo companies hit the wall, a lot of capable people become resources for entrepreneurs," says David Audretsch, an Indiana University economist who has studied the city's transformation. "That's what happened in San Diego. In the wake of that military downsizing emerged a strong entrepreneurial climate."

Nicole Kennard

Nicole Kennard,

New Leaf Biofuels
Clean tech is the latest boom in the San Diego scene, with dozens of companies trying to stake their claims in the alternative energy sector by focusing on solar, wind and even algae-based energy sources. But Nicole Kennard is looking elsewhere--to the back alleys of restaurants in particular. Her company, New Leaf Biofuels, aims to be the biggest provider of biodiesel in San Diego County, a dream that involves trucking tons of used fryer grease from 900 area restaurants to New Leaf's San Diego processing facility and converting it into B99 (99 percent biodiesel fuel), which is then purchased by government and business fleets across the county. "The city is big on getting green business here, and they have a program encouraging clean tech," says Kennard, who snagged a $590,000 loan and some help cutting through the red tape for permits. "They're basically trying to help us in whatever way they can." With diesel prices jumping up and down and lots of her grease providers going under, the last year has been difficult, but her 10 employees and the company's capacity to produce 140,000 gallons of fuel a month make Kennard optimistic that things will work out. "We're still alive, and we feel really fortunate to have made it through these hard times," she says. And there is a light at the end of the tunnel. "There are a lot of renewable energy credits coming from the federal government and lots of encouragement from our local government," Kennard says. "We're happy for that."

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Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.

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This article was originally published in the August 2009 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Where to Be an Entrepreneur.

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