Innovation Keeps San Diego’s Startup Scene Alive

Author: Hoa Quach
Created: 14 October, 2020
Updated: 14 August, 2022
4 min read

Before March, VirBELA, a virtual reality company in San Diego, saw a steady flow of clients who wanted to offer their workers an engaging, remote office space. Today, the company, founded by Alex Howland and Ron Rembisz, has flared into a massive operation, seeing revenue increase by 260%. 

Howland said his immersive technology platform has appealed to event organizers from around the world after health officials ordered the public to maintain social distance. To keep up with the demand for his software, Howland’s staff increased from 20 employees to 120. 

VirBELA is just one of several San Diego startups participating in San Diego Startup Month, a virtual event that aims to educate and connect entrepreneurs and others in the business world. It’s also one of a handful of local startups that has found success despite the economic downturn. Perhaps the biggest news out of San Diego's startup scene is that of software company, Seismic, which raised $92 million in its latest round of funding.

San Diego ranks among the top 10 cities in the U.S. for starting a business and is among the nation’s top 10 fastest-growing high-tech job markets. San Diego startups received a record $1.26 billion in funding in the second quarter 2020, according to National Venture Capital Association and Pitchbook.

VirBELA offers users a virtual world where they can interact and work together. Courtesy photo

VirBELA, which offered the platform for San Diego Startup Month and its 800-plus attendees, brings engagement and experiences to life in a virtual platform. The software allows users to create an avatar and engage in a modern, 3D environment. Users can even enjoy musical performances and firework shows in this environment.  

“I think we’ll continue to see an increase in virtual events and creativity in what a virtual event looks like — whether it’s a typical webinar or something extreme in what you might see in Fortnite,” Howland said. “The world has been woken up a bit. We’ll have more in-person events coming back, but I think the market will realize we need to get more creative.” 

Howland said business owners and leaders found they needed a more engaging, remote environment shortly after the stay-at-home order was announced.

“Initially, we saw a lot of people going to comfort zones — Zoom meetings and Google meetings, but they quickly realized that they don’t bring the level of engagement that an in-person event brings,” he said. “A lot of individuals and organizations can get work done remotely but how do we create cultures and systems that align with that productively. How do we work with social dynamics. These areas are what we are trying to hit on.”

Aside from events, VirBELA has also worked with UC San Diego and Stanford University in creating virtual education spaces. 

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“Usually like a phoenix, entrepreneurs tend to rise more from ashes,” Neal Bloom

“We are interested in how we build community and collaboration across areas of events, work, education,” Howland said. “Our hope is our technology provides for a social, community environment. We are doing everything we can so people can build these relationships rather than being on consumption mode all day.”

For other local entrepreneurs, the double-whammy of a pandemic and recession has lit a fire that’s driving them to create something new. 

“Usually like a phoenix, entrepreneurs tend to rise more from ashes,” said Neal Bloom, a local entrepreneur and chairman of Startup San Diego, a local nonprofit that serves as the gateway to the region's startup ecosystem. “We’re seeing that in mass right now in San Diego. Out of the terribleness of this pandemic, something new will come along and probably something better.” 

That’s where Startup San Diego Month comes along — what was once a weeklong in-person event has turned into a virtual month-long summit aimed at bringing entrepreneurs together. The event, which runs through Oct. 30, offers virtual workshops such as “How to Build a Thriving Company Culture in a Remote Startup,” and “Investors & Inventors Virtual Pitch Competition. There’s also a “talent incubator” where attendees can take part in live mock interviews, LinkedIn teardowns, and professional mentorship.


“It’s all about providing educational opportunities for talent,” said Alexa-Rae Navarro, executive director for Startup San Diego. “We’re providing an accessible experience that was really important to us as we dove into this virtual world.”

With the access to this virtual world and the current challenges, Bloom said more technologies will come out of San Diego’s thriving startup scene. 

“I think we’re going to find San Diegans are going to find the problems around them and say, ‘How can I solve that?'” he said. “That’s kind of San Diego’s nature. We work on curing cancer, we work on bringing data science to the world, we work on things that impact people’s lives. I think the problems and solutions during the pandemic, here in San Diego, are going to shed light on the rest of the world.” 

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For more information, go to https://startupsd.org/.

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