Published in UT San Diego, April 7, 2014
“Illumina named world’s smartest company,” said the MIT Technology Review’s annual list of really brainy and smart companies. Facebook did not make the cut, but Google did, finishing third behind Tesla.
And in case you were not aware, Illumina was co-founded by one of our all-time favorite people: entrepreneur, venture capitalist and philanthropist Larry Bock.
But if you asked him what he is most passionate about, it would not be the more than 40 companies that he has funded, started or helped (with a cumulative market capitalization in excess of $40 billion according to his bio).
It would be the USA Science & Engineering Festival that is expected to attract more than 250,000 people over the April 26-27 weekend in Washington, D.C. — the culmination of a yearlong program of events. Bock says this makes it the largest STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) outreach event in the world.
“As a society, we get what we celebrate. We celebrate athletes, pop stars and Hollywood actors and actresses, but we don’t celebrate science and engineering. So why not have the largest celebration of science and engineering in the U.S., and that’s what we endeavored to create,” Bock said.
Bock is an indomitable force full of unlimited energy. When he decides to tackle a project, nothing can stand in his way. The idea for the first science festival originated when Bock and his family visited a science festival in Cambridge, England, and he was so excited about the concept that he decided to create one in San Diego.
According to an article on inewsource.org, he put up $150,000 in seed capital and raised $550,000. His goal was to attract 15,000 attendees, so he was astounded when more than 100,000 people came to the inaugural San Diego event in Balboa Park in 2009.
After this success, he worked with UC San Diego to obtain a five-year, $3 million grant to expand the science festival, and he agreed to donate $200,000, plus his time.
Frustrated with the red tape, he turned his focus on developing a national event in Washington. Locally, the nonprofit Biocom Institute puts on the San Diego Festival of Science & Engineering — the latest one took place last month.
Like any entrepreneur, Bock is continually striving to make improvements. Most importantly, he said, the Washington event is now year-round with programs like the 150 “Nifty Fifty” science and engineering professionals who speak about their work and careers at various middle and high schools and the biannual series “Lunch with a Nobel laureate.”
With the theme “Getting Science Right in Hollywood,” he has recruited science consultants from TV series like “Breaking Bad,” “House” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
Other participating celebrities include basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the author of “What Color is My World?: The Lost History of African-American Inventors,” and Miss California Crystal Lee. Lee will talk about the importance of encouraging more women to pursue STEM careers. She is a second-generation Chinese-American who graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in marine biology and an M.A. in communications a week before earning the Miss California title in 2013.
This year, a large number of exhibits will focus on new manufacturing technologies like 3-D printing.
“These technologies will lead to the democratization of manufacturing, letting anyone build a product from scratch. One of our participating companies — Shapeways — is literally offering over 90,000 products from small inventors,” he said.
Bock is a man of grand passion and stands as the epitome of an entrepreneur who has given back and whose life demonstrates how one person can make a difference. And he is not standing still.
He wants STEM to be mainstream, to be what cool kids want to learn and embrace. As he puts it, “We will be happy when ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ has as much coverage of a science festival as they do of Comic-Con.”