Tijuana Innovadora fascinating as showcase for entrepreneurs

Published in UT San Diego, October 30, 2012

By Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry

Tacos, tequila and technology— a heady brew indeed. Tijuana is only a 30-minute drive from downtown San Diego, yet at times, we treat it more like a foreign country than our neighbor. But that is a big mistake.

In many ways, Tijuana is an emerging version of ourselves, and we believe this even more strongly after we attended Leadership and Entrepreneurs Day at the second Tijuana Innovadora, an 11-day conference (Oct. 11-21) that highlighted the creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship taking place in the San Diego-Baja region.

At the conference, we met four fascinating and diverse entrepreneurs who exemplify the future and the best of the region.

Jordi Muñoz, 26, who was born in Ensenada and grew up in Tijuana, is the co-founder and president of 3D Robotics, a binational company that sells electronic components for small, unmanned aerial vehicles principally to hobbyists and university professors who use them in the classroom. In 2009, his hobby became a business when Wired magazine editor in chief Chris Anderson saw an online video of Muñoz flying a helicopter with a Wii that he had customized. First, Anderson loaned him $500 to further develop the project. Then, he made a loan of $10,000 that Muñoz used to buy components that he assembled in his apartment. “I sold everything in one day, and I realized that I had a business,” he said. Anderson and Muñoz are the primary owners of 3D Robotics.

The company’s revenue has grown to about $500,000 a month, according to Muñoz, and has 40 employees — 25 in Kearny Mesa and 15 in Tijuana where a lot of the manufacturing is conducted. Locating on the border is a strategic advantage, Muñoz said, because the company can use lower cost labor in Tijuana for manufacturing and still be close to the research and development in Kearny Mesa.

We also met Derrik Chinn, 31, the founder of Turista Libre (Rad Tijuana Tours) that takes visitors behind the scenes to visit popular local hot spots such as professional soccer games, flea markets, roller skating rinks and small restaurants. Chinn, who came to San Diego from Ohio, originally moved to Tijuana because he wanted to learn Spanish.

Starting in 2009, Chinn took friends, and friends of friends on informal tours “because I wanted to change the perception of Tijuana and to take groups of people to sides of the city that I see.” Eventually, this sideline turned into a business.

Outside the conference hall, we talked with Roberto Gallegos, founder of D’Volada Café and Smoothies that has more than 100 locations in Baja. In 2000, Gallegos got the idea when buying a “bad coffee” at a convenience store near the border. At the time, Starbucks hadn’t yet opened any stores in Tijuana. To start with a splash and to preempt the competition, Gallegos persuaded five family members to each purchase a franchise so that D’Volada was able to open six stores quickly. Currently, he said they have more Baja locations than Starbucks.

Over cocktails, José Galicot Behar, president of Tijuana Innovadora, shared his inspiring life story of growing up in Mexico as the son of Jewish immigrants who came from Europe. Now 75, he is a successful entrepreneur in diverse endeavors including retailing and real estate development, and also a community leader, philanthropist and poet.

“Innovadora is my real vocation,” he said.

In an interview with La Prensa two years ago, he said, “San Diego has long believed that it has been living with a toad called Tijuana, but in reality Tijuana is a prince waiting to be discovered.” He contended that the two cities should work together more effectively “when it comes to medical services, cultural life, real estate” as well as water use and environmental issues.

The border is a complex issue, and we can only comment that it was disappointing how few San Diegans we saw at Innovadora. Deep connections take leadership from the business community as well as our local officials and the federal government. We saw the same passion, spirit, determination, dedication and discipline in Tijuana that we so often praise here, but if crossing the border continues to take an hour or more, the cross-border benefits that could so easily be achieved will be lost waiting in that line.

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