Political Climate with Mark Simon: San Mateo County has changed forever

in PoliticalClimate

The San Mateo County that was simply is no more.

Once a hotbed of social rest, San Mateo County is an increasingly urbanized technology focal point in the regional, national and global economy, and there is no going back.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the San Mateo County Economic Development Association’s annual showcase of new and innovative companies.

At these events, held every year at the Oracle Conference Center in Redwood Shores, recognized companies have run the gamut from science to medicine to toys to transportation and every other iteration of the new economy imaginable. The presentations often have audience members reaching for their smart phones to look up products and stock symbols.

This year was no exception as seven companies were honored as Innovators. They included startups that are delving deeply into virtual reality animation programming, customized shopping, a convincing alternative to meat and cancer diagnostic tools requiring only the drawing of blood.

Of the seven companies recognized by SAMCEDA, five are in Redwood City, two are in Menlo Park and one is in San Mateo. More interestingly, of the 42 companies honored at this event between 2010-17, 36 still are headquartered in San Mateo County — only six have left. Combined, these 42 companies employ 17,000 people.

As SAMCEDA President and CEO Rosanne Foust told Political Climate, San Mateo County used to be known for its annual “churn” rate of 50 percent – the percentage of companies that would start in the county and then leave. Most companies, if not all, would reach a certain size and then move elsewhere, usually in seeking space for manufacturing facilities.

But then came companies that “laid the foundation,” Foust said. In the late 1970s, Oracle established its world headquarters in Redwood Shores and then Genentech opened in South San Francisco. At first, they were the only major employers from the new economy, but they were the forerunners of companies that now abound.

One key characteristic they share is that their products are virtual and don’t require physical production plants. Facebook is the most dramatic example with its plans to grow substantially in the next decade without leaving Menlo Park. At Facebook, they manufacture ideas and they need their employees to remain together, generating and executing new ideas at a clip that will maintain the company’s success.

Certainly, San Mateo County’s unique setting is an essential part of its appeal – its proximity to San Francisco, the ease of access to the redwoods and the beach. Just as crucial is the presence of Stanford University as a feeder of workers and innovators, and it’s no accident that Stanford is expanding into San Mateo County.

The net result is a reconstitution of the county’s DNA.

“There’s an energy here,” said Foust, and the world’s leading innovators sense it, understand its appeal and want to draw from it and contribute to it.

“The vitality of Redwood City in recent years has created a virtuous cycle with the diverse people and local, national and international businesses fueling an incredible ecosystem,” said Kristy Stromberg, chief marketing officer for Shopkick, one of the Redwood City companies honored at the SAMCEDA event. “It’s a great location for a tech company like ours.”

Stromberg referred to Redwood City as “being in the heart of Silicon Valley.”

There’s something no one would have said 20 years ago, or even 10.

These changes are the most profound to face this community in our lifetime. As I spend more time meeting and talking with the people who are making this change happen, I will revisit this topic with an eye to fully understanding what has happened, what will happen and why.

Yes, the San Mateo County we once knew has changed forever. It’s better – more diverse, more interesting, more dynamic and economically more powerful.

Contact Mark Simon at