Michael Holliday had been using the abandoned lemon-packaging warehouse for 23 years, but it wasn’t until recently that the building’s orientation and location inspired the Santa Barbara architect to build it into to something more.
“I’ve been in this building for 23 years; it has been an amazing experience. I love being in the Funk Zone, and for the last four months I had my own office here in this building,” said the JM Holliday Associates principal architect and Synergy Business and Technology Center founder. “It has been fun to design and build your own project.”
After sandblasting the paint from the wood and cleaning the 6,500-square-foot building at 1 N. Calle Cesar Chavez, which had been there since 1928, Holliday transformed it into a business incubator.
Business leaders and government officials celebrated Synergy’s grand opening Tuesday night.
Finding affordable space has been one of the biggest impediments to local business growth, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider said.
“I think we have a very creative community, especially if you look at UCSB and SBCC, the challenge has been students who are ready to graduate with an idea but they have nowhere to land,” she said. “So this is a great place for them to get started in Santa Barbara and connect with other businesses.”
Business incubators contain small segmented workspaces that provide basic amenities and resources. Synergy will be a combination of an incubator, co-workspace and an accelerator. Businesses can choose whether they want to work in a collaborative space or if they want financial assistance in return for company equity.
“We’re starting off as a co-work facility, basically a bunch of creative people working together to launch their businesses to the next level,” Holliday said. “We’re trying to get complimentary fields together so they can stimulate thought processes. I have a guy sitting in front of me who is an MIT graduate, and we’ve already cooked up with two businesses because he said he can write the code for that.”
The next step will be forming a board of supervisors and teaming up with the SBCC Scheinfeld Center of Entrepreneurship & Innovation, which can help businesses grow through guidance and financial assistance, he added.
“Then we’re looking at incubating companies that already have a degree of success, and our board will come alongside and help them figure out what they need,” Holliday said. “The accelerator part of it will involve putting in funding in exchange for equity in the company. Some of our board are venture capitalists who are looking to invest in local homegrown talent.”
The facility can fit about 30 people and more than half of the space has been leased, Holliday said.
First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal said incubators are a perfect fit for entrepreneurs with minimal capital because they provide furniture, Internet and conference rooms.
“It’s a perfect, low-cost way of having a supportive environment that often times you need as a small business starting out,” he said. “You don’t need overhead costs, and this allows you to have the basic infrastructure to get your business off the ground with as minimal cost as possible.”
Schneider said Synergy could be a draw for businesses that could add to Santa Barbara’s cultural and economic vitality.
“I would be curious to hear from the business community how the city can get rid of some of the barriers and help remove some of the red tape to help businesses grow and prosper,” she said.
Small incentives would demonstrate that the city is on their side, according to Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce President Steve Cushman. He said waiving a year of business license fees for a new incubated business or helping with signage fees would go a long way.
“I think there is demand for this level of designed space at this price point because there are 6,300 businesses in Santa Barbara that have no employees and are run by one person,” Cushman said. “If the city helped out, it would be a symbolic gesture.”
If the incubator succeeds, Holliday said he would be open to starting another. But Synergy’s next milestone is the upcoming SB StartUP Weekend set for June 1-3. More than 100 entrepreneurs will come to Synergy to pitch their ideas, develop their business plans and possibly move on to a national competition.
“It’s totally consistent with the vision of this facility,” Holliday said. “We can become a part of not only a statewide but national entrepreneurial program.”