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Wednesday, Sep 27, 2023


A chief promoter for making Los Angeles a center of technology is getting fed up.

Here was Rohit Shukla describing the breadth and scope of the area’s technology community during a gathering of business executives last week and no one from City Hall seemed very interested.

“Look around. There’s not one member of the City Council here, no one from the Board of Supervisors,” said Shukla, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Technology Alliance, a group devoted to promoting and developing the local technology industry.

Shukla went on to criticize local officials in general, and the City of Los Angeles in particular, for failing to take the initiative in fostering the growth of local technology industries.

He sees the City of L.A. as key to galvanizing the entire region’s technology potential. And “bloody awful” is how he later described the performance of the City Council in advancing the cause.

Shukla’s comments, while unusual in their frankness, reflect feelings widely shared among the area’s technology and economic development boosters.

Los Angeles still places too many bureaucratic barriers in the way of new technology-driven companies, they complain. And city officials have failed to provide a unifying vision or plan to foster the local technology sector, which in L.A. is splintered by geography.

The City Council is a common target, but the frustrations extend to the mayor’s office and to Mayor Richard Riordan’s L.A.’s Business Team.

“I can’t get anyone at the City of L.A. to pay attention,” said John Slifko, technology advisor to U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, D-Panorama City.

Slifko said he has tried to generate support among city officials, including the Business Team, for an incubator project to nurture biotechnology companies coming out of UCLA, USC and CalTech. Those companies traditionally start up in L.A., Slifko said, but quickly move to business-friendlier climes.

Instead of embracing such projects, Slifko said, L.A. city officials have an agenda that is “always parochial: How can I take care of myself?”

“I’m extremely frustrated with the total lack of initiative and knowledge on the part of local officials,” Slifko said.

L.A. city officials don’t quite see it that way. When told of Shukla’s public remarks, City Councilwoman Laura Chick asked: “Who is this guy?”

Chick said her office has never been contacted by Shukla or LARTA and that she’d like to hear from him. (Shukla said he has contacted Chick’s office, as well as other Council members.)

Chick defended the council’s track record of supporting and nurturing technology, which has occurred primarily through the activities of its Community and Economic Development Committee, chaired by Councilman Mike Hernandez. The committee was active in supporting a multimedia tax incentive bill put forward by Riordan and Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, and recently passed by the council.

Hernandez did not return several telephone calls last week.

Not every seemingly worthwhile technology project can be backed, Chick and other L.A. officials argued. And while a priority, technology is just one industry and issue that city officials face.

“We’re trying to work on issues that impact not only tech firms, but all types of companies,” said Steve MacDonald, director of Riordan’s Business Team.

Crime, primary and secondary education and taxes cut across all industries, MacDonald said, and have rightly received much of the Business Team’s attention to date.

Of the proposed biotechnology incubator and previous attempts by Slifko to promote a local electric fuel-cell industry, MacDonald said the feasibility of a given project weighs supreme in determining whether it deserves the Business Team’s backing.

“We’ll continue to be open to any good ideas, but we have to weigh the likelihood of those plans’ success vs. our time and commitment,” he said.

Chick, meanwhile, said she believes the council will be damned by its critics no matter how it approaches the issue of technology.

“I certainly can’t disagree with the fact that we don’t have on the table a vision for promoting high-tech industry in the city,” Chick conceded, but “business traditionally doesn’t like government meddling in its affairs too much.”

Shukla isn’t convinced. “The onus is on them” to seek out ways to make life easier for local tech firms, he said, not to simply react when a company says it’s about to leave town.

“They take things on on a piecemeal basis, never with an overarching strategy,” Shukla said.

Despite existing friction, observers say now could be an ideal time for industry and government to come together to push L.A. technology development.

The results of a study commissioned by the mayor’s office are due to be released this summer. The purpose of the study is to identify which of eight to 10 “growth industries” biomedicine, environmental remediation, food processing and others the city should throw its weight behind.

A tax equity study is also due out in July, which is expected to offer some insight into which industries could best benefit from a tax cut.

Also, the Southern California Biomedical Council, an industry trade group, is actively searching for a site for the biotech incubator project envisioned by Berman. The group’s director, Ahmed Enany, said he would welcome help from the city in that site search.

And a conference to be held this fall, sponsored by Price Waterhouse LLP and other prominent firms, will address the role of local government in nurturing technology companies in L.A.

How much headway will be made in building collaboration between the tech industry and government remains to be seen. And don’t expect substantial progress overnight, Enany warned.

L.A. city officials’ “hearts are in the right direction, but to get them to move is going to take a bit of time,” he said. “If you go into this effort expecting that things are going to be done fast, you’re going to be frustrated.”

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