I/O Labs founder Brandon Webber talks about the vision for the tech incubator and work hub. Webber hopes the old bank building will have a positive impact on downtown Sacramento and the local tech scene. Ed Fletcher The Sacramento Bee
I/O Labs founder Brandon Webber talks about the vision for the tech incubator and work hub. Webber hopes the old bank building will have a positive impact on downtown Sacramento and the local tech scene. Ed Fletcher The Sacramento Bee

City Beat

News, insight and discussion on Sacramento and its neighborhoods

City Beat

Major tech hub taking shape in downtown Sacramento

By Ryan Lillis

rlillis@sacbee.com

February 07, 2016 11:20 AM

There’s a century-old bank building at Seventh and J streets that is a remnant of this city’s past. It’s a stately looking structure, with large windows facing the street and masonry columns reaching seven stories into the sky.

It also could be where Sacramento’s tech future finally takes off.

“We’re planting a flag in downtown Sacramento,” Brandon Weber said Friday, standing inside the First Northern Bank building’s fifth floor, where a construction crew was gutting the room in anticipation of its new life.

Weber is one of the driving forces behind I/O Labs, envisioned as the city’s largest tech campus. And he’s rather bullish when talking about this endeavor.

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He’s a founder of the Urban Hive, the co-working space and technology incubator in midtown that’s packed most days with entrepreneurs. I/O Labs would be 10 times the size of the Hive, and Weber said he already has about 400 people interested in paying a membership fee to work out of the hub. Within the next three years, Weber envisions having 1,000 members. Picture this: hundreds of entrepreneurs filling a downtown high-rise as they develop technologies in medicine, agriculture and civic involvement.

I/O Labs should be open by June and eventually could take up most of five floors of the building. The fifth floor will resemble the co-working space at the Hive, with techies working on leather couches and at custom-made tables. A major tech firm could reside on one of the other floors.

There’s a lot of activity going on around the I/O Labs digs. The top of Golden 1 Center is visible from the fifth floor. Another side of the building provides views of construction activity on K Street.

But, as Weber said, “it’s still a little funky down here.” And that could be the kind of environment that’s ripe for a startup endeavor. As the economy continues to improve in Sacramento, people like Weber are concerned that the kind of thinking that allows for a co-working and startup lab to invade five floors of a building will give way to a safer mindset. That’s why Weber said the timing is right for this venture.

“I’m a little worried the city will eventually lose its taste for experimentation,” Weber said.

For now, city officials are thrilled the needle is moving on the city’s desire to become a technology center.

Mayor Kevin Johnson announced I/O Lab’s move during his State of the City address last month. That same night, the mayor announced that a Silicon Valley fund called 500 Startups had agreed to invest in at least 10 new startups in Sacramento. And he proposed investing $1 million from a city-controlled innovation fund into new companies here.

Still, Sacramento is not even close to earning the same level of respect in the tech and startup worlds as the Bay Area or Seattle.

“Without a doubt, we are definitely not ‘there’ yet,” Weber said. “We have not arrived. We don’t have that vibrant tech scene yet, but that’s why we need this.”