San Diego Startup Month gets reimagined with virtual worlds in 2020

San Diego Startup Week, a grassroots tech event that once drew thousands of young entrepreneurs downtown for its annual gathering, has been remade for 2020. Yes, it’s virtual. But organizers have an interesting plan to keep their networking spark alive.

The plan includes a special kick-off event in a virtual setting resembling the video game The Sims, with avatars wandering a San Diego-like environment complete with beaches and campfires.

Attendees can digitally wander a conference-like startup fair, interacting with other entrepreneurs or companies at booths. They can attend a beach party, where their avatars can dance while their real selves (plugged into microphones at home) can voice chat with other minglers.

“You’re fully immersed into a live world,” said Alexa-Rae Navarro, the executive director of organizing non-profit Startup San Diego.

Startup San Diego is using software made by VirBELA.

Startup San Diego is using software made by VirBELA, which makes virtual environments for event organizers, companies and teams.

(Courtesy of Startup San Diego)

The virtual avatar experience, made possible by a software company called VirBELA, is reserved for kick-off day, Oct. 1, and the final day of the event, Oct. 30.

Historically, San Diego Startup Week was only one week long, crammed with workshops and educational talks during the day and social events at night. This year, however, organizers decided to spread the talks and events across the entire month of October, branding 2020’s event “San Diego Startup Month.”

There are many reasons for the change in format, Navarro said, not the least of which is the new COVID-19 world of work.

“In the middle of all this, everyone was figuring out the work-from-home thing,” Navarro said. “I myself was without childcare for three months and I knew that so many ticketholders were in the same position. We didn’t want to compete with all those responsibilities, or ask people to give up precious family or personal time.”

Under the new format, only two talks are scheduled each day, one at the lunch hour and one in early evening.

“People can attend on lunch breaks, or right before end of the workday, so they’re not leaning into dinner time or bedtime routines with their children.”

A calendar of sessions for the event, which cost $100 per ticket, is available on Startup San Diego’s website.

So far, the virtual event has sold about 600 tickets. That’s far below previous years. In 2019, about 2,100 attendees came to the event, and about 3,000 in 2018.

“People don’t necessarily know what a virtual conference means in this new pandemic era,” Navarro said. “So many organizations didn’t have the capacity to shift to a virtual format and had to cancel altogether. So I’m just really excited to be able to bring this experience to the community.”

Startup San Diego, a non-profit formed by a collection of tech entrepreneurs, runs almost exclusively on volunteers. But it still has strong financial support from local technology sponsors and San Diego universities, Navarro said.

Startups like PetDesk and GoSite sponsored the event this year, along with longtime supporter Cox Business, law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, among others.

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