A passionate, smart group of nearly 100 VOSD readers and friends gathered downtown Wednesday night for a conversation about the clouds on the horizon for local innovation. We started from themes in our current quest series  and explored from there.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Our speakers were Mary Walshok, a UC San Diego sociologist whose book “Invention and Reinvention: The Evolution of San Diego’s Innovation Economy” comes out in October, Joseph Jackson, who recently opened a biotech incubator in Carlsbad, and Melani Gordon, co-founder of TapHunter, a company that built an app to help consumers find their favorite beers on tap, and helps restaurants and bars connect with their craft-beer-loving base.

Here are some highlights of the conversations that followed.

Why San Diego?

I asked the speakers why they’ve decided to build what they’re building in San Diego.

Gordon, from TapHunter, moved to San Diego in 1999. She went to school here and committed to building her business here instead of L.A., San Francisco or New York. “I’ve now kind of made it one of my personal missions,” she said.

She described a “resurgence of downtown.”

There’s probably 30 to 40 tech startups in downtown San Diego, which is the best – worst – kept secret because a lot of people don’t know that. In the mornings you can walk between this place and our office is two blocks away and the tech founders bump into each other. It’s a very exciting time to be downtown if you want to build a tech startup.

Jackson moved to San Diego County full-time in January to take advantage of a space the city of Carlsbad made available for the biotech incubator.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Walshok moved to San Diego in the late 1960s and has watched the region transform itself.

“If I can be candid, I came to San Diego kicking and screaming,” she said.

I said, ‘How can I live in a town that only has the Navy and the zoo?’ Remember, the Torrey Pines Mesa was just starting. There weren’t a lot of universities, a lot of culture. … How did a place that you didn’t want to live in unless you were in the military or a defense contractor become a place that we’ve all fallen in love with, that attracts these incredible young people to take huge risks?

The city’s relative lack of big names and heavyweights turned into a benefit, she said. “Folks like us pool our energies and our ideas and sometimes our money and we create incredible things,” she said.

Huge Gifts of Land and Buildings

Walshok described the region’s military roots and the deep public support in the decades after World War II. The city’s gift of hundreds of acres of land helped recruit top scientists and researchers to San Diego, including Jonas Salk, who’d discovered a vaccine for polio.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

“In 1960 we had a mayor who’d had polio and had been in an iron lung for a year,” Walshok said. “And he got science and technology, so he championed the Torrey Pines Mesa, the Salk Institute and UCSD. And it was at that time a very tech-friendly environment.”

One modern-day equivalent to those huge land grants is the incubator Jackson’s building in a city-owned building in Carlsbad.

That effort is about “giving people the ability to pursue their own creative idea,” Jackson said. “If you no longer have the freedom to innovate within the traditional structures, it’s time to go outside them.”

“What you’re talking about is reducing the cost of taking a risk,” Walshok said.

‘The Social Problem’

An audience member, John McDonald, assessed the diversity of the group gathered for the conversation — and the topics we’d explored — and found it lacking representation from different socioeconomic levels in San Diego. Many social apps and tech companies don’t address needs for the vast majority of the people in the world and in this country, he said.

“What I want to hear is what’s the model for bringing innovation, collaboration, resources to those people that (are affected by) the income disparity in this country … that will continue to grow?” McDonald said. “What the hell is going to be the real answer to this question? You’re not answering the social problem.”

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

The speakers agreed any answer is elusive. Technology increases productivity but can kill jobs, Jackson and Walshok agreed. Google’s self-driving cars have potential to upend the trucking industry, for example. But Google’s shareholders grow their wealth at the same time.

McDonald said aside from redistributing wealth, he hopes to learn how to redistribute the tools needed for innovation.

“But this town doesn’t think about that dimension,” Walshok said. She invoked some examples of what’s possible, like Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank, winners of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for work to enable small loans to upstart businesspeople in developing countries.

“More organizations, like EvoNexus, Connect and others should be showcasing (ideas like) this,” Walshok said.

McDonald pointed out that he wasn’t just talking about finding solutions for global poverty, but trying to find ways to fight poverty in San Diego.

“You’re right on,” Walshok said. “And there just needs to be some momentum built, and a vehicle. Because it ends up creating wealth and jobs, just like these things do. But in a different part of society.”

Education Gaps

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Bernie Rhinerson, an audience member who is a San Diego Community College District trustee, asked the speakers what they thought should be emphasized in college and K-12 education.

Entrepreneurism, Gordon said, and not by “business plan and textbook.”

She said students need more training in lean startup culture.

Jackson said technical training to manufacture advanced biological materials should be on the list.

Walshok said universities need to stop training students to be either knowledge workers or technical workers. “I think the specialization that has emerged doesn’t serve us well,” she said.

This is part of our Quest to find out more about the innovation economy in San Diego. Here’s a good overview of what we wanted to find out, and check out these highlights from the series.

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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