Escondido incubator could revive North County’s ag industry. UC could be partner

A vacant, city-owned industrial building could become a hub for new businesses in the field of agricultural technology under a proposal now being explored by Escondido officials.

The idea is to turn the empty building at 455 N. Quince St. — most recently used as a mattress factory and warehouse — into an incubator where researchers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists could come together to hatch new companies that would serve North County’s agriculture industry.

At a recent city council meeting, city staff briefed the panel on the proposal and got a green light for further exploration and analysis. Along with studying the financial aspects of such a project, including renovation costs for the vacant, 40,000-square-foot building, the city is hosting a “hackathon” in October, when technologists, representatives of the agriculture industry and investors will gather to brainstorm ideas for products and services.

The city acquired the building, which sits on a 3.48-acre parcel, in 2010, and the building has been vacant since 2018, said Jennifer Schoeneck, Escondido’s deputy director of economic development.

A former mattress factory and warehouse that might be converted the property into an agricultural and technology incubator.

The City of Escondido now owns a former mattress factory and warehouse where there is a proposal to convert the property into an agricultural and technology incubator. The property sits on 3.5 acres and has 40,000 square feet of industrial space. Friday, Sept. 23, 2022 in Escondido, CA.

(Don Boomer / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In a presentation to the council, Schoeneck said the project makes sense because it brings together the city’s agricultural heritage and a fast-growing technology sector. An incubator would also transform an unused, blighted building into a thriving workspace for innovation.

The San Diego region is home to plenty of tech talent that could potentially be attracted to the new ag-tech incubator, she said.

Council members sounded supportive of the proposal, but wanted to know more about potential costs, including revenue that could be lost if the property is not sold or leased out. Along with the parcel at 455 N. Quince, the city owns two adjacent parcels, totaling 9 acres for all three properties.

In an interview, Schoeneck said she doesn’t yet have figures on how much renovations would cost or potential sources of funding, but said those are areas of focus as the city studies the project further. Once more information is available, staff will bring the proposal back to the council for a decision on whether to move forward.

Potential partners in the incubator project include the University of California. Glenda Humiston, vice president of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, wrote to the city that her agency is “quite interested in pursuing a collaboration with the city to conduct agricultural research at this facility,” and she is optimistic a formal agreement can be reached.

Oli Bachie, county director of UC Cooperative Extension for San Diego and Imperial counties, which conducts research and advises the local agriculture community on a range of issues, from pest management to irrigation and nutrition, said the proposed incubator would offer a much-needed facility to conduct basic research and house the program’s equipment.

Indoor space could also be used for a variety of purposes, from a demonstration kitchen to space for hydroponic farming, Bachie said.

The program would also be interested in outdoor space for research fields, where crop management techniques could be tested and exhibited for the benefit of local growers, Bachie said.

“This would definitely be a huge benefit to our services,” Bachie said.

Officials are planning a hackathon — an event in which various experts come together to brainstorm solutions to problems, often set up as a competition — both to get the word out about the incubator project and gauge interest in the tech and agriculture communities.

The hackathon will run from Friday, Oct. 21, through Sunday, Oct. 23. The event is expected to draw as many as 100 participants to form teams, come up with creative solutions to ag-tech problems and pitch their ideas to a panel of judges, said Neal Bloom, managing partner at Interlock Capital, who was hired by the city to organize the hackathon.

The hackathon will kick off with a community social event open to the public, and continue through the weekend, culminating with the teams pitching their ideas Sunday. A group of investors will judge the presentations, and cash prizes totaling $10,000 will be awarded to the winning teams, Bloom said.

The mix of participants will include representatives of San Diego-based tech firms as well as university students and others interested in developing and pitching their ideas.

“I think there will be fundable companies that come out of this,” Bloom said. The fee to participate in the hackathon is $99, and tickets to the social event on Friday are $15. Proceeds will be used for prize money for the competition, Bloom said. The hackathon will take place at Synergy CoWorking Centre, 140 N. Escondido Blvd., as the incubator site has not yet been renovated.

If the ag-tech incubator project does go forward, Schoeneck said it will be the first of its kind in Southern California. A similar incubator was established in Sacramento in 2012 and now boasts state-of-the-art wet labs, a commercial test kitchen and co-working and meeting space, according to a staff report.

For now, Escondido officials are considering a three- to five-year commitment for the incubator project. An ag-tech incubator would help “preserve our agriculture and attract new ag-tech businesses that could generate jobs and create economic opportunity for our city,” Schoeneck said.

For more information on the hackathon, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/san-diego-agtech-startup-hackathon-tickets-403527620977 .

https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/communities/north-county/escondido/story/2022-10-02/escondido-incubator-could-revive-north-countys-ag-industry-uc-could-be-partner