(TNS) -- More entrepreneurs are finding hospitable havens in Oakland to launch, expand and nurture high-tech companies, but work is needed to keep those companies in the East Bay's largest city, according to experts who gathered in downtown Oakland on Tuesday.
Technology employment has been growing by 4 percent to 10 percent a year over the past five years and grew by 7.2 percent during 2014, according to an update from the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
"The tech ecosystem is growing in Oakland," said chamber president Barbara Leslie.
While only a fraction of the size of the tech mega-hubs in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, Oakland nevertheless is poised to come into its own as a technology center, she said.
The purchase in September by ride-booking Uber Technologies of the old Sears Building on Broadway in the increasingly hip and bustling downtown district as a major milestone for the evolution of Oakland as a tech hub, following Internet radio pioneer Pandora Media and solar energy firm Sungevity.
"Tech is clearly a growing presence in our community," said Karen Wertman, an executive with The Port Workspaces, a facility in downtown Oakland that provides space on a flexible basis to entrepreneurs and other business people. "We have to find the best ways to grow these tech companies."
It may be a mix of companies that create critical mass.
"Oakland has always had gritty and scrappy entrepreneurs," said Marisa Raya, a tech lead in the city's Economic and Workforce Development Department. "We have a strong homegrown tech sector in Oakland."
Still, the experts hailed Uber setting up a headquarters as a game-changer for Oakland's downtown in particular and the tech ecosystem in the East Bay city in general. At the end of 2014, Oakland had 5,600 technology workers, who accounted for 3 percent of Oakland's total workforce, the chamber of commerce reported.
"The announcement from Uber has really created greater interest in Oakland," said Wes Selke, managing director and founder of Better Ventures, which provides venture funding for early stage tech companies that focus on making a social and environmental impact with their technologies.
Laurence "Lo" Toney, a partner with Google Ventures, the venture capital arm of Mountain View-based Google owner Alphabet, is enthusiastic about the city.
"I'm very bullish on Oakland right now," Toney said. "Oakland has a great labor pool and great pool of entrepreneurs."
Ruben Hernandez, chief executive officer of Devlabs, an Oakland-based company that incubates tech startups, said he prefers to deal with local entrepreneurs rather than those who emerge from the top universities in the Bay Area.
"We don't usually look at entrepreneurs from Stanford or UC Berkeley, because they are too overpriced," Hernandez said. "They are right out of school and right away they want a valuation of $5 million or more.
Homegrown business people are more to Hernandez's liking.
"We're looking for entrepreneurs with expertise in health, food, transportation access, and have great ideas to create some efficiencies in those areas," Hernandez said. "They will get funded."
Selke called on Oakland officials to curb red tape and provide tax, development and other business incentives that can be dangled in front of tech companies already located in that city.
"We have to keep these tech companies in Oakland," Selke said, noting that some of the technology firms moved from expensive San Francisco to relatively inexpensive Oakland. "We don't want them moving to the next cheaper place."
©2015 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.