Central California isn’t usually thought of as a hotbed of technology, but techies and local leaders are looking to change that in their quest to diversify the region’s economy.
Daniel Galindo spends almost his every waking moment with Google.
“I use Google for research, for homework, class projects. Also, my phone is powered by Google,” Galindo said.
The life of this 22-year-old Merced College student is inundated with Google. So when I asked if he wanted to come with me to a project Google is working on nearby, he actually looked up from his phone.
We drove to the Cold War-era Castle Air Force Base, just north of Merced. The location of Google’s latest project testing wasn’t highly publicized, but a brief article in the local paper had tipped me off.
Among the 2,700 acres of runway and run-down office park, tech companies are using the base to build drones and rockets.
The news article said Google was testing things at Castle, but the tech giant is notoriously top secret. They wouldn’t give us an interview. But a base manager pointed out a 6-foot-tall chain-link fence covered in green mesh. Galindo and I peeked over the top and saw driverless cars.
“They’re using the old parking lot around the dormitories, with new stoplights put in, to test these cars. And we’ve been seeing a black car with one or two people talking into something driving around the track,” Galindo said.
Local leaders want to attract more companies like Google.
“Becoming a success in the future is thinking bigger, thinking brighter, it’s thinking Google,” said Mark Hendrickson, director of economic development for Merced County.
An hour south on Highway 99, past dairies and almond orchards, a group of young programmers wants to turn Fresno into a tech hub. One of them is Fresno native Irma Olguin.
“We can pull this off in a place like Fresno,” she said.
Jake Soberal stands in what will be Bitwise South Stadium in Fresno. Bitwise Industries plans to open the second campus in 2015.
Five years ago, Olguin founded a tech competition in Fresno called 59 Days of Code. Developers have to create apps and software in less than 60 days. Jessa Garly created an app called Pantry Chef. I met up with her at this year’s competition.
“Our app is a recipe list, a pantry list and a grocery list all in one,” Garly said.
Last year Olguin helped create Bitwise Industries. Today its building in downtown Fresno houses 28 companies.
Career Pillar is one of them. It creates online interactive resource tutorials for career centers and schools. Cramped in a 9-by-10-foot room, the company could have easily sprouted up in Silicon Valley, but co-founder Edgar Blunt said he wanted to plant Career Pillar in Fresno.
“We’re excited about being a part of something that can help change the landscape and the thought and idea of the valley,” Blunt said.
He chose Fresno because operating costs and rents are low. Blunt and his fellow entrepreneurs also say there’s a growing untapped talent pool in the region, many of them Fresno natives — boomerangs — who have returned home. The digital magazine Vocativ ranked Fresno just behind New York City when it comes to livability for the 35-and-under set.
These days there’s a lot of talk of expansion in downtown Fresno.
“We are in what will become Bitwise South Stadium,” said Bitwise co-founder Jake Soberal.
He said at one time the 52,000-square-foot building in downtown Fresno was a three-story indoor car dealership.
“All the way down to the back side of the building you’ll see technology companies of all stripes,” Soberal said.
Bitwise hopes to break ground next year. But Soberal said what he and his team are creating won’t be like Silicon Valley or San Francisco.
“We’re Fresno and we should be Fresno,” said Soberal. “To the extent that we keep trying to replicate other places, we will fail.”
They’re still not exactly sure what’s going to make them uniquely Fresno. Will their products reflect the agricultural region that surrounds them? What role will Silicon Valley play in all this?
These questions have yet to be answered. But for now there’s excitement for what the region could become.