🚀📈 Orange County's Best Startup Accelerators
Our unbiased opinion of OC's best accelerator and incubator resources
Not all accelerators & incubators are created equal. In the world of business there truly are no free lunches, and being informed about the program you are applying to is an important first step. While accelerators may wave resources at you, at the end of the day each of them has its own pluses and minuses that may derail your progress if you’re not careful. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t consider using them, but it does mean you should tread carefully, and put in the time to really find who will be your best partner. Just because a resource appears lower on our list doesn’t mean they can’t be the right fit for your company. Business & business model alignment is important if you want to get the most out of your accelerator experience.
We’ve provided easy to access application links at the bottom, so get moving! There’s no better time to start than now.
Operate is the premier startup accelerator in OC. While they call themselves a “venture studio” they provide all of the resources traditionally offered by an accelerator, and more. Founded by Carey Ransom, the organization is extremely community oriented, founder friendly, and willing to go the extra mile to make your business succeed.
Resources include (but aren’t limited to) capital investment, workspace in Costa Mesa, Admin support, coaching & executive training, KPI development, talent acquisition, a startup support community, and a host of other digital services to help you grow. The application process is simple, and requires just a short pitch video & deck for your initial contact. They seem to be quite open to industry, but mainly focus on digital technology.
If you’re looking for a partner who is willing to get into the trenches with you, Operate is the place to start.
Often overlooked, the Startup Incubator at Cal State Fullerton is a fantastic resource. What it lacks in pedigree it more than makes up for in service offering.
Weekly sessions with an expert startup coach
VIP access to all incubator events, including one-on-one time with the speakers
Introductions to members of the CSUF Startup community of more than 1,000 successful entrepreneurs, professionals, and investors
Monthly Feedback sessions with the CSUF Startup Incubator staff, which includes entrepreneurs and investors
Invitation to special events with other CSUF Startup Incubator residents, coaches, and CSUF Startup community members
While the incubator doesn’t offer direct cash investment, it provides resources that will significantly lower your startup costs. Program Manager, Travis Lindsay, is an experienced entrepreneur, and is always willing to lend a helping hand. The application is a bit more in depth than Operate, but shouldn’t take long.
If you’re ready to move into the customer discovery process to begin validating your business model, your go-to-market strategy, and really understanding who your customers are and what they want, this is your place to start.
***Note: It appears EvoNexus Irvine is now virtual only with no physical space.***
The first “true incubator” on our list, EvoNexus should be considered Orange County’s crown jewel form startup acceleration. Located in The Vine building, their space in Irvine is tangential to most of the happenings in the OC startup scene.
EvoNexus provides a pretty liberal incubation framework, allowing companies to stay for in the program for 2 years (or more in some cases). While they don’t directly invest, they do have deep relationships with some of the capital providers in the area. Like most incubators, they provide a wide array of support functions to hep offload costs from your business. As payment, EvoNexus takes a small amount of equity (1%) in exchange for their support. While not much, its worth considering as you weigh your options.
Managing Director Bob Genthert is a real asset to the space, and goes out of his way to provide support to all the portfolio companies. While the program is industry agnostic, they do seem to have a bias toward fintech, medtech, and digital technology.
The application is fairly short, but has some in depth questions and asks for a deck in a specific format, so allow some time for this one. You’ll also need to provide some contact info to get past the “paywall”. Unfortunately, the space in Irvine isn’t taking physical applicants right now, so for the time being their virtual program is the only thing available.
University Lab Partners (ULP) describes itself as “an independent, non-profit, wet lab + medtech incubator”. To they layman, that means you can find wet lab space in a shared workspace (ie. co-working) model to help lower costs. The space is brand new, so you can expect state of the art facilities all around. The staff is helpful and courteous, and
While the services provided are affordable for what you get, they are still quite expensive for most startups. ULP is medtech only and primarily reserved for companies that need wet lab space that have enough cash on hand to pay for lab space, so keep that in mind. ULP advertises a wide array of community and industry partnerships available to members, so make sure to inquire how you can take advantage of those before applying.
The ULP application is pretty short, but quite specific. We wouldn’t recommend applying if you haven’t received funding (SBIR is noted in their materials).
The counterweight to CSUF’s incubator, UCI’s Applied Innovation Wayfinder Program offers similar resources in a flashier package. You’ll get all the standard support systems to help push a company, some prime real estate office space, as well as access to the UCI support network. There is a strong network of entrepreneurs-in-residence willing to help (just make sure to properly vet your mentor). The program lasts 6 months, so be ready to dive in to take advantage. While the program doesn’t supply direct investment, it has a close relationship with many local funds, and holds the attention of quite a bit of the OC startup scene. Consider this if you’re looking to be seen.
This application is a doozy (read: will take you a considerable amount of time). In addition to a very in depth set of questions, Wayfinder also encourages applicants to have already engaged with another Applied Innovation resource prior to submission. You DO NOT need to be a student to apply (a team member that is a current UC faculty, student, staff, or alumnus is required), but in our research it seems to help considerably. Companies are accepted in cohorts, so pay attention to the application dates so you don’t miss out. The program accepts businesses of all types, so don;t feel excluded by this one.
Supported by the Small Business Development Center and US Small Business Administration (SBA), Launchpad is a pro bono service (read: its “free”). While that should be intriguing for startups, you’ll definitely be competing for time and exposure with other companies. We would consider this more of a mentorship opportunity vs a full accelerator, so consider it if you are looking for a lighter weight program.
This is a pretty simple application process, and doesn’t have many surprises. Launchpad is open to most industries. There’s really no reason not to apply, so get going!
Pismo is the new guy on the street. We have limited experience with them, but founder JJ Richa has been in the startup space for a while. They have a service portfolio similar to Operate, so consider applying to both.
Recently, they’ve done a good job putting on some high quality events focused on startups. They have just started building their network, so keep your eye tuned here in the future.
It would be wise to get some of your questions answered before applying to make sure you’re a good fit. The application is a bit long in the tooth, but if you’ve already done one above this, a simple copy and past would probably suffice.
Have one we missed? Let us know in the comments.