The New Global Leader, Part VII: Jonathan York, PhD, Turning Passion Into Profit for Start-ups and Entrepreneurs

04/01/2014 05:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2014

Professor Jonathan York is the founder and guiding light of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), affiliated with the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly State University located in San Luis Obispo, California. Jon teaches entrepreneurship at this elite institution. In a dynamic and never dull career-adventure, Jon has been a CEO in both established businesses and startups, consultant and venture capitalist spanning the diverse yet interconnected fields of technology, academia, services, health care, government and international business. Jon is a driving force of innovation on the Central California coast and beyond.

O'Brien: To start this off with a provocation, why the sleepy, provincial Central Coast of California? Isn't this just home to ranchers and wine-makers and not much of a tech hub?

Jon: Well, the first thing I might do is take exception to the sleepy and provincial part, and get to the technology issue later. San Luis Obispo is a vibrant community, anchored by Cal Poly, a growing and selective university, with students who are deeply rooted in technology. At the same time, there's been an influx of people who are ready to leave behind the Bay Area or Los Angeles metroplexes, and live in a beautiful city with an amazing quality of life. What we have found is that many of those who move here also bring a great deal of intellectual and financial capital to the community. SLO is a place where you can start and grow a company, and where the flow of capital of all sorts is not solely outward.

O'Brien: A key element of the CIE is the HotHouse. What is this exactly?

Jon: The SLO HotHouse is a local hub for entrepreneurial activity. Cal Poly, through its Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, worked with the community in opening this, originally so we could have an incubator and co-working space for startups. But we also knew that to develop tech strength in a smaller city, you need to actively work to create a critical mass--it just doesn't happen by sheer numbers as it might elsewhere. So the SLO HotHouse brings the entire community's entrepreneurs into contact with each other and with the kinds of people who can help their businesses grow, whether that's customers, advisors, or investors.

O'Brien: Great. So every college student with an app idea is welcome. Boring. Where's the real value? Where are the success stories?

Jon: Again, you're way off. The interesting thing about our incubator, and Cal Poly, is that we have students and entrepreneurs who actually make things. So while there is the requisite share of apps, there are also food startups, materials startups, and business software providers. Frankly, in the three years we've been running the SLO HotHouse, we haven't yet had our multi-million-dollar exits. But we have at least 10 companies which are actually earning revenue, and our companies have raised significant outside capital as well.

O'Brien: Impressive. So where do you and the CIE go from here? What's the vision, and where would you like this to be in five years?

Jon: Our vision is to reach deeper into our undergraduate student body and get innovators involved at a much younger age so that we can increase the number of startups coming out of Cal Poly. We also plan to involve more community-based startups in the SLO HotHouse, which itself will need to move to a larger space sometime soon. Understand that as educators we don't measure ourselves by expecting that all students will be successful with their first startup, but we know that eventually they will build sustainable companies.

O'Brien: Nowadays it has become very sexy to call yourself an "entrepreneur" or a "start up." Everybody, it seems, is eager to jump on this bandwagon. You know, however, how empty these words can sometimes be and how rough the market is. From your perspective, what are the key elements to start-up success?

Jon: I guess because I teach and coach entrepreneurs for a living now, I should have a good answer for this. I would say always stay in touch with the real world by talking to customers, and get ready for a much longer and bumpier ride than you can imagine, with very high highs and very low lows. Always be learning, reading, asking questions and building your network. Oh yes -- offer something that people will pay for and you can make a lot of money from.

O'Brien: Fascinating. Thanks for sharing these valuable and no-nonsense insights, Jon. And much good luck in setting the Central Coast on fire!

Jon: Burn baby burn! And many thanks to you, too.

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