Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, March 16, 2020
I just saw the future. I spent the day at the San Diego Science and Engineering Festival at Petco Park.
But as is always the case with the future, it also has a past. So, let’s go back in time and remember Larry Bock, who changed biotech in San Diego. He founded a few companies — Illumina, Nanosys, Pharmacopeia, Idun, Caliper as well as financing more than 40 others.
He was known as a “keystone species” — which in the innovation context is “someone who connects people who would benefit from working together, but who would not work together under normal circumstances because of trust, distance or cultural barriers.” The man spanned scientific continents. By the way, he was legally blind at the age of 29. He knew no barriers.
My wife and I met him when he was starting the festival in 2009. We interviewed him on our radio show (full disclosure, we used to do a radio show in the offices of the San Diego Union-Tribune.) Bock was a dazzling guest, and we became friends.
Larry Bock, along with Lockheed Martin, was the founder of the very first science and engineering festival in San Diego. Bock was an entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word, and like all entrepreneurs, he ran into some headwinds with the entrenched bureaucracy. He applied for and won a government grant to do the festival. (This comes under the heading of be careful what you wish for, you may get it.) With that grant came strict rules, conditions and red tape. While the grant was technically to UC San Diego, Bock was the brains and heart behind the event. But the tension was obvious and Bock clashed with the university at every turn. Bock felt that UCSD was rigid and unappreciative. He said, “They thought I was a difficult person. I am a difficult person, I’m difficult because I demand perfection and I’m passionate about it. And I don’t want to do anything second rate.” Spoken like the true entrepreneur that he was. Sadly, Bock died in 2016 from cancer.
But let’s pause a moment. To my way of thinking, this is no surprise — entrepreneurs and bureaucracies are like oil and water. The details are long forgotten, but the theme was quickly cast in stone. The first festival in 2009 was a wild success in Balboa Park, attracting more than 50,000 people. And then frustrated with lawyers, lawsuits and back-biting, Bock picked up his test tubes, packed his bags and took his festival, now called the USA Science and Engineering Festival, to Washington, D.C., where it launched the following year on the National Mall with an introduction by Barack Obama, and more than 250,000 people showed up. Folks, there is a lesson in here, and I am going to let you find it on your own.
But I told you I saw the future today. I saw 50,000 parents and children wandering around Petco, dazzled by the exhibits, the dozens of volunteer scientists and engineers, and the science. I talked to Joe Panetta, CEO of Biocom, one of the major sponsors of the event. He says he became enchanted with science in fifth grade, because a teacher made it special for him. Joe embodies the mantra that you need to get to the children early and tell them about STEAM.
At lunch, we sat with two young engineers from Northrop Grumman. They were spending the day as volunteers. They were recent college graduates, one Berkeley, one Stoneybrook, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science. Their first jobs out of college are with Northrop, where they participate in a three-year program which lets them sample various products and programs within the giant corporation. Then they get to pick a specialty that fits them. Clearly, Northrop does not want to lose talent.
San Diego has come a long way. The past is behind us, but it is always important to remember the vision, the genius and the commitment of Larry Bock, who was the first to imagine what a science festival could do for a region. What I saw today was thousands of young people with eyes wide open, beginning to explore possibilities, careers and passions that they had never previously imagined.
Rule No. 651
Larry Bock was blind, but he could see for miles.