With Qualcomm in Play, San Diego Fears Losing ‘Our Flag’

Qualcomm’s takeover battle is coming at a sensitive time for the San Diego ego. While the city is one of America’s innovation powerhouses and a hive of start-up activity and venture capital investment, it has had less success in attracting big companies — or, for that matter, keeping the growing companies it creates.

Years of corporate acquisitions have left the impression that San Diego’s biotech industry is a sort of farm team for East Coast and European pharmaceutical giants. Amazon is expanding its local office but left San Diego off its list of finalists for its second headquarters. Even the city’s sports teams seem to be up for grabs: Last year, the Chargers football team (whose home field was Qualcomm Stadium) moved north to Los Angeles. It was tracing the steps of the Clippers basketball team, which left San Diego for Los Angeles in 1984.

“We think of ourselves as a very innovative community that does a lot of start-ups and creates the companies of tomorrow,” said Jerry Sanders, mayor of San Diego from 2005 to 2012 and now chief executive of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. “We have a pretty good idea that once they get a certain size, they may be gone.”


Mr. Jacobs came to San Diego as an engineering professor, then founded a consulting firm that started designing circuit boards and chips. He and others who left that company started Qualcomm.

Kim Kulish/Corbis, via Getty Images

Qualcomm was the exception. Mr. Jacobs, the original chief executive, moved to San Diego in 1966 to join the faculty of the University of California, San Diego. Two years later, he founded his first company, Linkabit, a consulting firm that did contract research to help clients like NASA solve deep-space telecommunications problems and later started designing and building circuit boards, chips and other components.

As Linkabit grew, it attracted engineers from powerhouse institutions like M.I.T. and Stanford to the San Diego area. And as the university grew, Linkabit started finding more of its engineers locally. One built off the other, and suddenly there were the embers of a telecommunications cluster that today drives a little under a quarter of San Diego’s economic output, said Mr. Cunningham of the research institute.

And just as Silicon Valley’s ecosystem can be traced to a chain of events that saw employees leave one company to form another, so can Qualcomm’s. Linkabit engineers moved on to seed new companies in the area. Mr. Jacobs departed in 1985 and soon got together with a group of former colleagues to create a company centered on quality communications, or Qualcomm for short.

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