On a recent Monday evening, around 60 people mingled on a patio at Jackalope Ranch in Indio.
The attendees—a mix of students, teachers, business people, tech experts and politicians—sipped drinks and munched on chips, guacamole and skewered chicken as they chatted. All in all, it was a typical-looking business-related social gathering.
But the goals of the people at this innocuous-looking event, called the Desert Tech Meetup, are far from innocuous: They want to make the Coachella Valley a technology-business hub.
The gathering—the second such Desert Tech Meetup—was held by Silicon Springs Ventures, in partnership with web/marketing firm Graphtek, and the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership (CVEP).
“We’re all here for Silicon Springs: the movement,” Joel Fashingbauer, Silicon Springs Ventures’ president and chief operating officer, told the crowd. “We want to create another Silicon Valley, one that’s smaller and more efficient, in the desert.”
In between mingling time and giveaways of gift cards and Graphtek coffee mugs, Fashingbauer talked about how Silicon Springs—a company that launched in May—and its partners plan on creating that other Silicon Valley.
In October, Fashingbauer and his four partners launched Disruptor Labs, a project to develop online apps and mobile products. Silicon Springs is working with CVEP’s Workforce Excellence effort—the goal of which is to create a better-trained, more-educated local workforce—to launch the STEAM Pipe Initiative at local schools, including College of the Desert. The company is helping develop a program, called Encore, that will pair retired and semi-retired executives in banking, technology and other applicable fields with startup entrepreneurs in need of expertise. Finally, the Silicon Springs Ventures team has been meeting with people from various tech startups—about 45 or so, Fashingbauer estimates—and will help the most promising find funding.
All of these plans undeniably sound great. But they also lead to a question: Why the Coachella Valley? Why here?
Fashingbauer, in an interview prior to the tech meetup, said he gets asked that question a lot. For him, in part, it’s personal: His wife has family who lives in Palm Desert, and he’s been coming here for about 15 years.
“It’s been our oasis,” he said, mentioning the “Sunday blues” that all smitten visitors face when they have to leave this oasis to return home.
But the “why” also goes beyond the personal. Fashingbauer pointed to the great weather, the affordable cost of living (especially regarding housing, when compared to Silicon Valley and its Los Angeles descendent of sorts, Silicon Beach), the lack of traffic and the overall quality of life that makes the Coachella Valley an attractive place for tech businesses.
There’s one more reason, one that combines the personal and the practical: Everyone who loves the Coachella Valley agrees that the desert could use more industry. He mentioned the economic damage done here by the Great Recession, when the real estate market crashed, and tourism suffered. Technology firms didn’t get hit as hard by the downturn, said Fashingbauer, a digital-products expert who most recently was the vice president of product development for Atari.
The goals of Silicon Springs Ventures are undeniably ambitious—but they’ve gotten the attention of the valley’s leaders. Indio Mayor Elaine Holmes and Palm Desert Mayor Jan Harnik were among those mingling at the recent Desert Tech Meetup.
Of course, these goals will not be reached overnight.
“We’re doing a lot of behind-the-scenes seed-planting, and having conversations with leaders,” said Rich Silveira, Silicon Springs’ chief financial officer and vice president of finance. “Some of those seeds will fall away and die, and some will come to fruition.”
Of course, more seeds were being planted at the Desert Tech Meetup; while the gathering looked innocuous, the brain power present in the all-ages crowd was undeniable.
The third Desert Tech Meetup—one of four planned for 2014, thanks to CVEP’s support—is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 30, and will most likely be held in downtown Palm Springs. Fashingbauer said the format may be tweaked; for example, the Silicon Springs team is looking at possibly bringing in computers for attendees to use for demonstrations and information-sharing.
“Silicon Valley can’t really grow any more. They’re out of space,” Silveira said. “We provide this expanse of real estate and a lower cost of living. … If we feed the ecosystem, our young graduates don’t have to leave here. They can stay right here.”
For more information on Silicon Springs Ventures, including more details about Desert Tech Meetups in 2014, watch siliconsprings.com, and follow the company on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SiliconSpringsVentures.