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How Innovation Works (and Doesn’t) in SD

For the last couple of months we’ve been exploring together [1] some challenges facing San Diego’s innovators and the sectors they’re trying to grow here in our latest “Quest” series. We’ve been happy to play a role in sparking important conversations about the way scientists, tech minds, governments and communities are thinking differently, and we hope those continue.

It’s time to wrap up our foray [2] into these topics for now. Here are some highlights from our exploration:

Roots

San Diego’s place in the global landscape for technological, biotech and other innovation has roots in its military prowess [3] in the 20th century. The city offered huge swaths of land [4] to facilitate research and development at places like General Atomics, Salk Institute, UC San Diego, helping to recruit top scientists and researchers to San Diego in the decades following World War II.

One example of a modern-day equivalent: The city of Carlsbad made a vacant building available for a new low-cost workspace for biotech innovators [5] that opened last month.

What We’re Known For

San Diego’s got an innovation reputation for “phones, drones and genomes [6],” as UCSD sociologist Mary Walshok put it. But the realms of stem cells, wireless tech, software analytics, solar energy, robotics, craft brewing, cybersecurity, the science of applying natural features (like colorful butterfly scales [7]) to tech problems and sports equipment are also making a mark locally and nationally.

Challenges

Gender and Diversity: There aren’t simple answers for increasing racial and gender diversity in the innovation sectors, but about a dozen people shared their perspectives on whether San Diego has a “patriarch problem.” [8] A scientist chimed in with possible reasons for gender imbalance in the sciences [9].

Tech: This spring and summer has been a time of soul-searching [10] about what San Diego’s startup tech scene needs. Such startups, a few dozen of which are starting to coalesce around downtown, say they’re looking for savvy mentorship, money and community. At our live event a couple of weeks ago, startup founder Melani Gordon said she’s seeing a “resurgence of downtown.” [11]

Clean Tech: Entrepreneurs growing the region’s stake in solar energy and biofuels like algae face funding challenges and political headwinds [12] as they scale their technologies to make a dent in combating climate change.

Civic Innovation: San Diego, unlike some peers [13], has no open data policy, no chief of innovation and currently no open government director. But there are some interested, tech-savvy activists who want to find new, more efficient and less expensive ways of doing city business and helping regular people get involved in city decisions. What the city does have is a nascent Incubator for Civic Imagination that pledges to get a couple of ideas [14] in place by the end of the year.

Research: More than $1 billion comes to the region in science and technology research grants. We explored a growing debate about the merits and drawbacks [15] of emphasizing potential business applications for research even as researchers begin their initial tests.

Blue Economy: Despite local energy and research for ocean projects like wind energy and fish farming, advocates for the “blue economy” sector say little thoughtful planning [16] has been done to facilitate its future growth. They want to see a robust “marine spatial planning” effort that would adapt the principles of land zoning to the sea.

Biotech: Veteran scientist Susan Baxter offered her take on what San Diego’s biotech cluster needs [17] to continue thriving:

To sustain San Diego’s critical mass of biotechnology professionals, the community requires continued public and private support for higher education, funding for basic research, financing to sustain new ventures, and a good business climate for existing companies.

Lingering Questions

We just scratched the surface here. Here are some things to watch in the coming months and years:

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