Alexa-Rae Navarro took the helm of Startup San Diego as executive director in December 2019, just before the COVID pandemic shut down most in-person gatherings – including San Diego Startup Week, the organization’s signature event.
Startup Week returned to an in-person event this year, drawing more than 1,500 individuals from across the county “coming together to celebrate entrepreneurship,” Navarro said.
“This is year one after the pandemic, so establishing what that conference looks like was our top priority in ensuring that we craft a really intentional experience.”
The event was held over four days (Oct. 25-28) at four locations across the region.
“We started the week off in a garage, literally an old auto garage, talking about startups, and throughout each and every day we transcended through the entire startup life cycle, ending at the Alexandria Tech Center – sort of a garage to IPO kind of thing within a week,” Navarro said.
The experience for attendees, mostly founders and prospective entrepreneurs, also included focused, educational sessions organized across eight functions-based tracks: Founder, People, Data, Customer, Marketing, Sales, Design, and Developer.
In addition to the educational sessions, Startup Week featured a heavyweight pitch competition between 16 companies from industries ranging from biotech to fashion.
Taking the top prize this year – a $10,000 cash grant from digital product development and investment company Aleph One – was Salt Lake City-based Vistim Labs, a company developing a data science solution to help clinicians and researchers detect and track neurological disorders.
Runners up in the competition were Panic Panties, maker of women’s undergarments that are packaged for emergencies; Shore Buddies, a San Diego-based company founded by Malte Niebelschuetz that makes stuffed animals from recycled plastic bottles; and San Diego-based Aleria, a digital technology solution for workplace diversity.
“Participating in the SDSW Heavyweight Pitch Competition was an incredible opportunity for the Aleria team,” said Aleria co-founder and CEO Lisa Russell. “We were able to showcase our work, meet folks from the local startup community and put our pitching skills to the test.”
Russell said participating in Startup Week helped “shine a light” on the company’s traction and built awareness with investors and potential hires for the Aleria team. She also highlighted the competition’s good nature.
“I felt like I was surrounded by close friends. Being able to support one another, cheer each other on and celebrate the progress we’ve all made it so far, all while actively competing, says a lot about the San Diego startup community,” she said.
Startup Week concluded at the Tech Center by Alexandria where the ceremony for the second annual Startup Awards was held, honoring the startups and individuals that have been change-makers in the local startup ecosystem.
- Investor of the Year: Dean Rosenberg, Vice President of funding at NuFund Venture Group
- Impact Company of the Year: Aquacycl, led by CEO Orianna Bretschger
- Startup Champion of the Year: Hala Madanat, Vice President of Research and Innovation at SDSU
- Think Big Lifetime Achievement Award: Mary Walshok, Dean at UCSD Extension
- Startup of the Year presented by JP Morgan Chase: Drata, led by co-founders Troy Markowitz, Adam Markowitz, and Daniel Marashlian
This year, the awards ceremony added a special category to honor the most valuable volunteer at Startup San Diego, Navarro said. The honoree of the “Decades Award” was Interlock Capital Managing Partner Neil Bloom.
“I’m truly honored to be recognized by my community. I’m very dedicated to progressing our community that helped me when I was starting my first company, Portfolium,” he said. “While it’s nice to be thought of for the 10 years I’ve been building, I’d like to think I am just getting started. If Irwin Jacobs and Malin Burnham can still have an impact in their 90s, I think I’ve got another six decades to contribute as well.”
Navarro is also looking at the decades ahead for Startup Week, hoping to build upon the success of this year’s event.
“It exceeded my wildest expectations,” she said. “Looking at next year and the years after, it’s about ‘how do we scale that?’ How do we go from 1,500 to 5,000 and grow from a people standpoint to be able to do what we did this year and then some.”
Startup San Diego
Executive Director: Alexa-Rae Navarro
Headquarters: San Diego
Business: Nonprofit dedicated to growing entrepreneurship in San Diego
Employees: 1 full-time employee, 3 part-time contractors
Notable: In 2021, Startup San Diego hosted 1,734 entrepreneurs, founders, and startup community members at its signature conferences and events.