In the early 1980s, the City of Irvine consisted of a bustling university, commercial and industrial parks, thousands of acres of strawberry and tomato fields, and about 30,000 residents scattered in neighborhoods.
Then new business started to move in. A new magazine, Entrepreneur, set up shop near John Wayne International Airport. Broadcom and Western Digital came to town and transformed the business landscape forever. Finally, the Irvine Co., landholder of the former 150,000-acre Irvine Ranch, worked with city officials to create a city around the university that also set aside 60,000 acres for open space.
Today, Irvine is one of the most vibrant life sciences, IT, and medical tech cities on the planet, a shimmering diamond in California’s top 5 world economy. It houses 900 tech companies and 450 life sciences companies, with medical tech and academia wrapped around all of it. The centrifugal force of the city, UC Irvine, fosters the growth with its Applied Innovations program and 65 STEM-related research centers, while educating many of the 30,000 STEM students who graduate from SoCal colleges each year.
A Model for Sustainable Cities Before “Sustainable” Was a Thing
“The Irvine Company did something really spectacular with its holdings, working hand-in-hand with city officials to create a business-friendly city, a master planned city, that also provided considerable open space, to have a balance,” said Linda DiMario, Executive Vice President of the City of Irvine Chamber of Commerce. “The master plan is one of our constants, as we seek businesses that fall into our target sectors, and like their employees to reside here and contribute to community. The master plan was a model in sustainable cities 25 years before we started using the term.”
Besides the usual corporate relocation lures — California’s tax incentives, infrastructure, favorable property location — Irvine has taken a personal route in creating a massive in-city tech zone. The vast open space and hiking trails in the nearby Laguna Hills, Laguna Canyon, and Newport Coast are reminders of California’s rancho history, providing many outdoor activities. Then there’s the weather, close proximity to the ocean, Irvine’s middle positioning between L.A. and San Diego, and also its location in the heart of Orange County.
But another factor makes Irvine such a rich contributor to California’s technological prowess: developing and nurturing new businesses, entrepreneurs, and workforces. “It’s a combination of factors,” DiMario explained. “We have an extraordinary innovation ecosystem, which is not often recognized, since everything seems to be in the shadow of Silicon Valley. One of our biggest assets is Octane, a global leader among incubators and accelerators. Over 500 companies have germinated through Octane in the last 10 years, and 88 percent are still in business.”
Because it’s so specific, the master plan gives DiMario, her team, and other business developers the ability to develop strong, sustainable programs within it. One example is Irvine’s Foreign Direct Investment Vision, which for 2018 includes the UK, Japan, and continental Europe. “We’re IDing companies that are the right match to grow here,” DiMario said. “We’re a little more strategic in that adherence to the master plan.”