Aim for CEO.
No, it’s not career advice, it’s essentially the philosophy that Rob White, the city’s new chief innovation officer, carries with him to Davis; an ethos that he believes can ignite the local economy.
Reel in that big fish, he’d say, and the jobs will follow.
“CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, COO jobs,” White explained Thursday. “Every one of those folks has to be supported by a whole infrastructure system of administrative help, staff help, technical help, the tech manufacturing jobs that come with (them). And then, maybe most importantly, this is what makes a robust downtown: You need retail, you need places to eat and you need places to shop.”
White has spent the past five and a half years sculpting Livermore in the Bay Area — a city White says is so similar to Davis that the two were separated at birth — into a high stakes player at the technology and innovation industry table by practicing this very idea.
As the director of economic development there, White cofounded the Innovation for Green Advanced Transportation Excellence (iGATE) innovation hub, linking tech businesses, academic institutions, tech-minded cities and two major national laboratories together, to foment growth throughout Northern California.
For his work in local innovation, he was recognized by the White House as a “Champion of Change.”
“What I was able to do for Livermore was to take it from obscurity,” White said. “Most people thought of Livermore as a rodeo town. … It didn’t have the ability to really be at the table with the players that it wanted to be. (So) we systematically, in a calculated way, we pulled in the right players, including the national laboratories and some of the great universities around.
“We brought industry to the table in ways that nobody had ever seen. And so then a buzz started to be created.”
After a bit of cajoling from a local private nonprofit business association called techDAVIS and city leaders, White agreed to leave his post in Livermore and come to Davis.
techDAVIS is composed of current and former local senior technology executives as well as ex officio members from the government, university and business services sectors.
City Manager Steve Pinkerton and techDAVIS eventually worked out a deal where both the city and the private group would equally share White’s $240,000 annual salary for the next three years. The City Council cemented White into the city’s pay roll this week and he will officially start on March 25.
In his new position, White will be asked to take the reins of economic development with the hope that he can uncork the city’s tech-potential by promoting its assets and strengthening ties with UC Davis, while building on relationships he had formed in his previous work, including with Lawrence Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories in the Bay Area.
With a 20-mile inner tube of agricultural land encircling the city, in addition to its short-causeway-ride-proximity to policy makers in Sacramento, White sees Davis positioned extremely well to make the jump as a leader in the technology and innovation industries.
And of course, it all begins with the university.
“Think about where there is an agricultural-based school near a large population center that has quick access to the policy makers and decision makers, that also has quick access to markets,” White said. “There are very few places anywhere in California, let alone the nation, that have all those nexus points.
“Davis … wound up really literally putting itself at the doorstep of an agricultural revolution, and we’re going to reap huge benefits out of this.”
Earning the exact salary that he did with Livermore, White wanted the job in Davis because, in the Sacramento region, he sees no other city that has the ability to emerge as a national leader in tech-innovation.
Though, the 10-year West Sacramento resident’s eyes sparkled a bit when thinking about the 15 minute drive to work that will replace the 90 mile commute to Livermore as well.
“Having lived in Yolo county for 10 years, I’ve always had the belief that in the Sacramento region, probably one of the only places that has a true future in driving a technology driven economy is Davis,” White said.
The new addition to city hall comes as yet another banner flown by the city and the City Council in support of local economic development of late, emphasizing the importance of propping up the revenue side of the city’s budget, rather than cutting its way to a balanced or black bottom line.
Before White’s hiring, among other efforts, the council over the past year had commissioned a study from McDonough + Partners to map out a local economy centered around sustainability, partnered with UCD Extension graduate course, Studio 30, to identify advantageous placement for high-tech innovation parks in the city and most recently publicly supported Next Economy, a “regional prosperity plan” spearheaded by four regional nonprofit business organizations.
Perhaps the council’s most staunch advocate for economic development in Davis, Councilwoman Rochelle Swanson, hopes that White can assemble all of the pieces the city has collected over the past few years and build a sustainable and thriving local economy.
“We have outstanding resources in our community, resources any other city in the region would love to have,” Swanson said in an email to The Enterprise. “Unfortunately, we are not utilizing those assets to their potential.”
“This public/private partnership with the entrepreneur community financially partnering with the city to do our very best to leverage our collective assets is unprecedented. The more revenue we can produce, the less we have to rely on fees and taxes.”
Dave Morris, the interim managing director of techDAVIS and a former UCD medical faculty member who spun out a company called Sagres Discovery, Inc., says that White can deliver prosperity in short order, which is why techDAVIS has worked over the past few weeks and months pulling in the donations they need to pay for White’s presence in Davis.
“I think in three years, we’re probably in the black,” Morris said Thursday.
Though it’s not only the local tech industry — which already has been bolstered with the arrival last year of Mori Seiki, a Japanese tool manufacturer that picked Davis over suburban Chicago to build its first manufacturing plant in the United States — that believes it will benefit from the boost city leaders hope White can muster.
Doby Fleeman, owner of retail-focused Davis Ace Hardware, sees the benefit as a net positive for all local businesses and residents as well.
“I think it’s just an exciting time for the community,” Fleeman said at the City Council meeting Tuesday.
— Reach Tom Sakash at [email protected] or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @TomSakash