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San Diego’s Coolest Companies

In an age when CEOs are sitting in cubicles, the desk is a treadmill, or the office is just a telecommute away, the way we work is changing. Companies aren’t just innovating products (like underwater drones and 3-D headphones), they’re innovating the workplace, too. Here, we highlight the best and brightest in San Diego, from women in corner offices and Navy pilots turned entrepreneurs to corporate campuses with volleyball courts, book clubs, and on-site bars, proving that work is not, as Oscar Wilde once said, “the curse of the drinking classes.” If a job is essential, let’s make it enjoyable. Welcome to working in the 21st century.


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GoPro

Location: Carlsbad
Employees: 150; 1,500 globally

GoPro’s 45,000-square-foot space in Carlsbad features an on-site gym, outdoor showers, surfboard lockers, and more.

There’s no doubt that GoPro’s hi-def video cameras are cool; Google “10 best GoPro videos ever” and you’ll see what we mean. They’re widely considered the most versatile cameras on earth. Based on our research, working for this fast-growing tech company is equally cool. Its San Diego outpost recently moved their offices from Cardiff to the Make campus in Carlsbad. Amenities include an on-site gym with massage therapists and personal trainers available for hire, outdoor showers for a post-surf rinse, surfboard lockers, and an amphitheater. Employees can also borrow beach cruisers for lunch break rides. And speaking of lunch, the complex houses a Copa Vida shipping crate café and offers a rotating selection of food trucks every Wednesday. Earlier this year, GoPro announced plans to launch its very own drone, Karma. It also recently acquired two leading mobile editing apps, Replay and Splice, meaning it’ll soon be easier than ever to shoot, star in, and package your own videos—just like, well, a pro.

Working hard or hardly working:

Every Thursday, from 1 to 3 p.m., employees halt operations and pick up their GoPros. The company’s Live It, Eat It, Love It program encourages people to do whatever they love—surf, hike, down a dozen donuts—with one caveat: They must capture it on their GoPro, and ideally, upload the footage to social media.

Local love:

Founder and CEO Nick Woodman graduated from UC San Diego, with a degree in visual arts.

Coola

Location: Carlsbad
Employees: 40; 50 outside sales reps

How cool is this local sunscreen maker? They recently launched an exclusive mineral-based line for Target called Bare Republic, and announced a partnership with the LA Galaxy pro soccer team. Meanwhile, the flagship Coola brand is the SPF of choice at resorts like the Montage Laguna Beach, Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, and Aria Las Vegas. Celebrity fans include Jennifer Garner, Kerry Washington, Ryan Reynolds, and more. This month, they’ll debut tinted versions of their best-selling Liplux lip balm and expand on their organic, eco-conscious offerings, with new scents, colors, and travel sets. In-house, it’s no surprise that the company projects a laid-back vibe. “Sandals and short sleeves are the norm,” says founder and CEO Chris Birchby. He started the business out of his Bonsall garage in 2002, after his parents were diagnosed with melanoma. Today Coola’s offices are located in a new, 44,000-square-foot space that’s dog-friendly, with stand-up desks, surfboards leaning against the walls, and bikes and paddleboards available for use anytime. One other perk? Unlimited sunscreen.

Fuse Integration

Location: Makers Quarter (Upper East Village)   
Employees: 15 

Lee installed a 3-D printer and 14-foot-tall whiteboard so employees could get their ideas in front of others.

What’s a software development firm doing inside a graffiti-riddled warehouse? Founder and former Navy helicopter pilot Sumner Lee believes “a space like this fosters creativity and influences motivation and the way you get things done.” Launched in 2010, Fuse develops tech products and systems for both the military and civilians, often applying an idea to one sector before adapting it to the other. For example, Fuse is developing an app that allows a group of people to track one another, access a shared map, draw on it, and communicate securely. Imagine firefighters being able to locate every member of their squad in a brush fire and plan their next move. Fuse is testing the app with Competitor Group, organizers of the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon, before releasing it to emergency responders and soldiers. Fuse works with the Department of Defense, SPAWAR, and NAVAIR, but also law enforcement, as well as consumers.

Brain Corporation

Location: Carmel Valley    
Employees: 35

When considering the city’s major innovators—the folks truly changing how we will live in the years to come—Brain Corp. is at the top of our list. The robotics business, founded in 2009, specializes in making humanlike brains for robots, and got its start doing contract research for Qualcomm. Today Qualcomm remains its sole investor. “We transform today’s manually operated machines into tomorrow’s autonomous solutions,” says co-founder and CEO Eugene Izhikevich. The renowned computational neuroscientist foresees an era when robots will be able to help people with tasks like cleaning, lifting, and sorting. This September, the company will launch an indoor navigation module for industrial floor-scrubbing machines. They’re working with existing manufacturers to create “a robotic labor-saving solution” for large retail stores and warehouses that will have multiple types of sensors, allowing it to see the environment the way humans do. “So if there’s a shopping cart in the way, or someone is standing in front of the machine, it will be able to change its path accordingly,” Marketing Manager Paul Behnke explains. At the company offices, daily free lunches foster collaboration. “It’s a fairly flat organization,” Behnke says. “Our CEO is on-site every day. He inspires the vision but is open to ideas from all levels.”

Oh hey, smarty pants:

90 percent of employees have graduate degrees and nearly 50 percent have PhDs. The company has more than 100 years of collective neuroscience and brain research experience.

Hookit

Location: Solana Beach
Employees: 25

Co-founders Scott Tilton and R. J. Kraus met in seventh grade and became best friends racing motocross in New York. At 25, they created Sponsor House, a platform for amateur athletes to connect online with sponsors. When they realized a move to SoCal was imperative for their focus on action sports, they bought a motorhome and hightailed it to North County. Fast-forward eight years; they had 1 million registered athletes and rebranded as Hookit to broaden their scope. In 2012 they launched the Hookit Score, which measures the marketability and talent of an athlete. “Basically, it’s a credit score for an athlete,” Tilton says. “We track social media and also integrate with wearable tech devices to show how much an athlete practices, travels, and competes. How committed is this athlete to the sport?” GoPro asked them to track the value of pro athletes, in order to quantify sponsorship investments. For example, how often did pro surfer Kelly Slater mention GoPro, and how much social media interaction did each mention generate? By measuring the cost per engagement, Hookit can determine how much an athlete is worth to a brand. The company recently got a ton of press when they determined that soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo was the first athlete to have 200 million followers across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Hookit also tracks teams as well as musicians, bands, and politicians.

Holiday Party 2015:

Trampoline dodgeball. Enough said.

Bam Communications

Employees: 14

This all-female PR agency’s space in El Cortez features flying pigs, neon signage, copper barstools, industrial lighting, and bookcases filled with inspiring literary gems. The conference room is wallpapered with female superheroes, as is their website. Among the employee perks are jaunts on private planes, thanks to their client Surf Air.

Classy

Location: downtown    
Employees: 160

What started as a 75-person pub crawl to benefit cancer research has morphed into a full-fledged production company for charity. CEO Scot Chisholm and his buddies Pat Walsh and Marshall Peden grew the company by way of dozens of events, like tailgating at the ballpark, starting the PB Fire Run, and launching their Elemental Experience in Mission Bay, a 2009 concert for San Diego Youth Services attended by 5,000 people. Unsurprisingly, they soon realized they’d outgrown the MySpace, Evite, and PayPal tech they’d been using to organize their events. “So we went on Craigslist and hired a guy who became our VP of Engineering. Today we’re a tech company.” In 2010, the founders quit their day jobs and raised their first $100,000 through Connect’s springboard program. On classy.org, nonprofits can create a well-designed, mobile-responsive fundraising page. One of Classy’s first clients was Invisible Children. When the Kony 2012 video went viral, it included a link to Classy, and the site saw 8,000 donations per second. To date, Classy orgs have raised hundreds of millions of dollars. And most recently, the company announced a five-year partnership with the National Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which will be using Classy instead of their homegrown tech.

Classy culture:

While all the do-gooding helps boost morale, it also helps that they have half-day Fridays and tons of company sports teams. San Diego Business Journal recognized them as one of the “Best Places to Work” in 2015.

What’s in a name?

“Classy” comes from the famous Anchorman line “You stay classy, San Diego.”

Latitude 33 Planning & Engineering

Location: Scripps Ranch    
Employees: 53

The planning and civil engineering company has its hands on cool, sustainable mixed-use projects. “We look at a larger scale—the master planning, infrastructure, and design,” says co-founder and senior principal planner Randi Coopersmith. In their portfolio are the recently opened Cross Border Xpress, plus a master plan for Otay Mesa to come, as well as UC San Diego’s medical campus expansion east of I-5. Latitude 33 is also turning the Embarcadero Anthony’s into a Brigantine and a Miguel’s Cocina with dock-and-dine access, and transforming a Rancho Peñasquitos retail center into a mixed-use development known as Merge 56.

Good sports:

The fun includes half-day Fridays, outings to Padres, Gulls, and Sockers games, laser tag, and one memorable lunchtime carnival in which employees were allowed to dunk senior managers “without repercussions.”

The Honest Kitchen

Location: East Village    
Employees: 45 humans, 31 dogs, and 5 cats

Employees can bring pets, or “co-woofers,” to the office.

It’s the first pet food company to get FDA approval to list as human-grade, but The Honest Kitchen had a humble start, specifically in a Pacific Beach kitchen. “I’d been feeding my Rhodesian ridgeback my own blend of homemade food and loved the results—his coat looked amazing and his ear infections cleared up—but it was time-consuming, and I ended up with a very messy kitchen!” says founder Lucy Postins. The solution was a dehydrated, non-GMO food made with high-quality proteins like free-range chicken, leaving the natural color, taste, and nutrition in place. Two paws up!

Company culture:

Rather than sitting in conference rooms to brainstorm ideas, team members and their pets often head outside for 30-minute “walking meetings.”

Cool perks:

There are bikes for employee use, chair massages, birthday celebrations for people and dogs, and reimbursement for fitness expenses.

Sempra Energy

Location: Downtown     
Employees: 750; 17,000 globally

Sempra Energy just signed a 25-year lease for a brand-new, 16-story tower near Petco Park. It’s no surprise that the headquarters of Sempra (which owns SDG&E) would be LEED Gold certified and have a 52-kilowatt solar panel system. Employees enjoy tons of open meeting space, natural lighting, and sit/stand desks. One of just two Fortune 500 companies based in San Diego (the other is Qualcomm), Sempra was listed among the “World’s Most Admired Companies” in Fortune last year. The mag has also recognized CEO and chairman Debra L. Reed, one of 25 female Fortune 500 CEOs.

Giving back:

The Sempra Energy Foundation makes it convenient for employees to give back through funded programs, earn grants for charities through volunteer work, and use payroll deduction to donate to favorite orgs—and the company often matches these donations.

Easy riders:

Mass-transit subsidies aside, those who carpool, drive electric vehicles, or ride bikes enjoy dedicated spaces in the parking garage.

Underground Elephant

Location: East Village     
Employees: 97

Digital marketing is (deep breath) the service of helping companies attract web-based consumer traffic with targeted online campaigns and custom marketing software across search, social, and all device types. It doesn’t sound sexy, but if there were ever a company to make it so, UE is it. This young and fast-growing agency is all about building a creative workplace for its employees and, thereby, its clientele. Industry insiders are buzzing about UE’s brand-new 21,000-square-foot space in the historic TR Produce building downtown. The clever design team at Basile Studio (Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar, Polite Provisions) has planted five living olive trees inside the industrial brick building, with plans for a custom bar area and prairie schoolhouse–motif meeting room. In addition to its unique environs, the perks abound: donuts and espresso; tuition reimbursement; weekly happy hours sponsored by Ballast Point; an on-site concierge available for hire; and much more. But UE doesn’t stop there. “Our CEO wants this to be a platform for professional ambitions,” says Jarrod Russell, director of public affairs. Beyond staffers learning to code, with mentorship programs and talks of an in-house career counselor coming onboard, the opportunities to grow talent and next-level careers are seemingly endless.

ViaSat

Location: Carlsbad   
Employees: 2,000; 3,700 globally

This 30-year-old company—founded by UC San Diego alumni Steve Hart and Mark Miller, along with chairman and CEO Mark Dankberg—began with a focus on military communications equipment. They still work with the Navy, but today they specialize in internet service: Their satellite gives 700,000 people internet access. In December 2013, they launched free streaming for JetBlue, and now Virgin America’s 10 newest planes have streaming for Netflix, YouTube, and more. In all, they service about 500 commercial aircraft for companies like United, Israel’s El Al, and Australia’s Qantas, plus 600 private jets. The company recently announced that ViaSat-2 will launch next year, expanding their data transmission rate to 300 gigabits per second—double the capacity of their first satellite. In 2019, the launch of ViaSat-3 will more than triple that number, to a whopping 1 terabit. (To date, their competitors only manage six gigabits.) While ViaSat is first and foremost a bandwidth provider—they designed their first satellite in-house and had it manufactured by outside companies—they’ve now begun building some spacecraft parts themselves.

See you on campus:

ViaSat has two beach volleyball courts and a basketball court that, says one employee, “actually get used.” There’s also a company gym and a Crunch gym on campus. ViaSat is currently constructing its 11th and 12th buildings and just purchased 23 acres for future growth, ensuring they will always have a contiguous campus.

LWP Group

Location: Barrio Logan
Employees: 7 at the headquarters; more than 100 across all establishments

“LWP” stands for “Live Work Play,” so it’s no surprise that the hospitality group has had a hand in some of San Diego’s most fun-loving concepts, including The Pearl Hotel (above), Tacos Perla, and the new One Bunk, a Barrio Logan rental studio that combines the traditional hotel experience with the modern ease of Airbnb booking. Launched in 2000 by Del Mar native Greg Strangman, LWP specializes in remodeling old, neglected buildings—“giving them a new lease on life,” he says—and turning them into something wow-worthy. This summer, LWP will unveil eight design-forward Airbnb-style rooms in a former Tijuana hotel before rescuing old structures and making them new in Valle de Guadalupe.

Cool perks:

LWP hosts an employee book club, Fitbit challenges, trips to Tijuana, and fundraising opportunities for employees’ favorite charities.

Ossic

Employees: 10  
Location: UTC area

Ossic began in August 2014 when four Logitech veterans saw the future. That is, they saw virtual reality coming and created an opportunity to make 3-D audio headphones to match 3-D visuals. When you wear regular headphones, explains co-founder and chief exec Jason Riggs, the sound almost seems inside your head and moves when you turn. But that’s not how people hear. If there’s a noise in front of you and to the right, it reaches your right ear first. It’s louder to your right ear, and your head also blocks some frequencies. Ossic X headphones automatically calibrate to the size of your head, the shape and size of your ears, and the distance between them. The headphones also track your position in space, so the sound always seems to come from the screen you’re watching, even if you turn away.

A major kick start:

Ossic applied for an EvoNexus incubator its first week of operation and was the youngest company to get accepted. They set their Kickstarter target at $100,000—and achieved it in 2.5 hours. (Ossic X headphones purchased through Kickstarter are $249; they will be priced $399 after the campaign ends.)

London calling:

Last December, they spotted an ad for a music tech incubation program at the legendary Abbey Road Studios and had four hours left to apply. “A few weeks later, we were in London, giving them a demo.” At Abbey Road, they will apply their technology to music.

What’s in a name?

“Ossic” comes from ossicles, the three smallest bones in your body (they’re in your ear).

Consortium Holdings

Location: East Village     
Employees: 460

The gory still from American Psycho in their meeting room? Tafazoli says, “I think that’s how we all feel sometimes.”

This hospitality collective, better known as CH Projects, was founded by Nate Stanton and UC San Diego grad Arsalun Tafazoli in 2009 and is behind some of the city’s buzziest restaurants and bars, including Polite Provisions, Soda & Swine, and the upcoming modern steakhouse concept Born & Raised, due this summer. It’s thanks in large part to places like these that San Diego has emerged as a bona fide culinary metropolis. Their stylish stable of establishments has garnered national recognition: Polite Provisions recently earned a James Beard nod for Outstanding Bar Program. “People would always say, ‘San Diego is only cargo shorts and flip flops,’ and that’s bullsh—,” says Tafazoli. “There are great people, and it’s a great city. You just have to believe in it, invest in it, and people will respond accordingly.”

Roll call:

Tafazoli jokes that the office is a mix of “misfits, immaturity, and bad jokes.” “When we started, we would bring people from Cornell School of Management or the Four Seasons training program, and they’d stick out like a sore thumb,” he says. “So we went the opposite route. We have lawyers, designers, musicians—the people who have really thrived have no background in hospitality.”

Cool perks:

After an initial 90-day trial period and review, employees are awarded a company coin that entitles them to 50 percent off at any of their locations and a discount at North Park’s Gym Standard boutique. After the two-year mark, employees get the chance to travel to an industry-related event—like Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans—on CH’s tab. An upcoming book club will also meet monthly at the CH office. “We’ll buy the book, not an e-reader!” Tafazoli says.

J Public Relations

Location: downtown     
Employees: 22; 48 globally

Their clients are located in domestic and far-flung destinations like Lake Como, Park City, Maui, and Dubai.

What started as a two-woman show back in 2005 has grown into a mini PR empire, with offices in San Diego, New York, London, and Los Angeles. Founding partner Jamie Lynn Sigler and her exclusively female team (save for two male IT workers) have acquired an impressive client list that spans the luxury lifestyle and hospitality industries. Their current roster includes the Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa, Ritz-Carlton hotels and resorts, Vail Resorts, Jumeirah, and many more. Last year, JPR announced the launch of its new social media company, 7th & Wit, offering clients another niche platform to promote their products. Perks include Fit Fridays (group workouts to kick off the weekend) and Decompress Days (in-house manis and massages). There are employee incentives and bonuses, and with an all-female group, the company takes pride in its paid maternity leave. There’s even a year-end employee appreciation day when they’re given Bloomingdale’s gift cards. All of this translates to happy staffers who’ve helped the agency continue to grow. “We all get along, really,” Sigler says. You go, girls!

See the world:

With more than 85 percent of business coming from travel and tourism clients, most employees get to travel. JPR currently has clients on every continent except Antarctica.

Think pink:

They’re girly and not afraid to show it. The San Diego office walls are awash in pink, and so is their logo. Coming soon: a rebrand that will take the logo from bubblegum to a more elevated rose gold.

Ocean Aero

Location: Poway   
Employees: 22

Ocean Aero builds Unmanned Underwater Surface Vessels that, unlike drones, don’t even require a remote pilot. The device, called a Submaran, can drive itself and make decisions on its own, such as whether to submerge during bad surface conditions. The UUSV is a 14-foot-long, 300-pound, $300,000 vessel that can transform from a sailboat to a submarine and back again, all automatically. Scientists from fields as varied as oceanography, meteorology, and vulcanology can study and measure water quality, temperatures, bathymetry, or collect data on flora and fauna. This is a huge advantage: Going to sea on a manned ship can cost $50,000 to $150,000 per day. “The ocean is one of the most unforgiving places in the world,” says CEO Eric Patten. “It has claimed a lot of lives. So why not get the robots to do the dull, dirty, and dangerous?” A scientist can push a Submaran off a pier, Patten explains, and let it collect data for months at a time, freeing the scientist to do other work. The Submaran is also used by military and commercial organizations to study hurricanes, measure crude oil concentration in seawater, and identify illegal fishing in protected marine areas that would be far too vast to survey manually.

Salute the CEO:

Captain Eric Patten is a retired naval aviator with 25 years of service, including a post as navigator of the USS Ronald Reagan.

Roll call:

Just over a year ago, Ocean Aero had six employees. Now they have 22. A few were engineers for the America’s Cup race. One worked on the Red Bull Stratos helium balloon, another on SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo, and still another worked with James Cameron on his journey down the Marianas Trench. Many employees are alumni of SDSU, and some of the young staffers are even named on Ocean Aero patents.

Illumina

Location: UTC Area     
Employees: 2,200; 4,800 globally

Each Illumina HiSeq 2000 (pictured) costs $654,000.

Illumina is dominating the DNA sequencing world, plain and simple. In February, Wired described it as the “Google of genetic testing.” The biotech giant builds machines that sequence the human genome faster and cheaper than its competitors. With the addition of a manufacturing building in the former Biogen campus off the 805, Illumina’s office space will total 1 million square feet. Among its highly skilled and educated workforce, you’ll find scientists as well as PhDs in business development and marketing. Illumina hired 800 people in 2015 and continues to hire for all functions, including manufacturing, finance, software development, research, science, and engineering. Also worth noting: Even execs, including outgoing CEO Jay Flatley (who will remain as executive chairman), sit in cubes. It’s all about open space and collaboration!

Giving back:

Illumina boasts a 1,750-seat amphitheater with a gym, coffee bar, and juice bar. It facilitates company meetings but also fundraising concerts for nonprofits. Rob Thomas, Los Lobos, and Matt Kearney have performed.

Perk of the century:

Employees can get their whole genome sequenced at a discounted rate—or for free if they have a serious preexisting condition. That’s a $1,000 value!

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