Former UC President Dynes Views CalIT2 as a New Paradigm for Innovation

4/8/09Follow @bvbigelow

At a luncheon that followed the La Jolla Research and Innovation Summit on Friday, I sat with Bob Dynes, the former President of the University of California system, who began talking about the formation of CalIT2 (Cal-IT-squared) almost a decade ago.

These days, the research center also known as the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology is playing an increasingly central role in multi-disciplinary advances that span academic departments, campuses, and even industries. The prevalence of CalIT2′s influence was evident throughout presentations made at the summit, which was organized for venture investors as a showcase of San Diego’s innovative capabilities. Sony Electronics, for example, used an algorithm developed at CalIT2′s machine perception lab as the basis for the “shutter smile” technology in the company’s latest generation of consumer digital cameras.

“Who would ever have guessed that CalIT2 would look the way it does today!” exclaimed Dynes, who spent 22 years at Bell Labs before arriving at UC San Diego as a physics professor in 1991. Dynes became UCSD’s chancellor in 1996, and told me he began working to create the institute—and to recruit founding director (and Xconomist) Larry Smarr—in 1999.

CalIT2 is one of four institutes for science and innovation that California Gov. Gray Davis officially launched in 2002 by signing legislation that provided $308 million in lease-revenue bonds. Since then, CalIT2 has come to embody Smarr’s ambitious vision for tackling daunting, large-scale problems.

“What we’ve succeeded in is this idea of institutional innovation,” Smarr said in an interview. By using the power of high-speed networks and high-performance computing, Smarr said CalIT2 can take on seemingly intractable problems in everything from molecular biology to atmospheric science by assembling multidisciplinary teams of the best minds, whether or not they are on UC campuses. He calls it a “persistent framework for collaboration.”

New buildings for CalIT2 were built at UCSD and UC Irvine, using about a third of the state funding, and Smarr said industrial partners have provided another $93 million since 2000. “We’ve probably interacted with hundreds of researchers supported by at least 300 federal grants and probably 200 companies,” Smarr told me. “Our buildings have only been here for three years, and we have room for a thousand innovators.”

Some of the CalIT2 programs that reflect the scale of such thinking include:

—Creating a “cyberinfrastructure” in partnership with the J. Craig Venter Institute and UCSD’s Center of Earth Observations and Applications to help analyze and store “metagenomic” data that precisely details the genomic sequences of millions of marine microorganisms. A $24.5 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation funded the program, with Venter supplying much of the data from his institute’s Sorcerer II oceanographic expedition to collect marine organisms.

—Development of a new computer-networking architecture for scientific research and innovation, dubbed the “OptIPuter,” because it links ultra-fast fiber-optic communication networks (operating at speeds as high as 10 gigabits per second) with Internet Protocol and data-intensive computer storage and processing. Funded by a five-year, $13.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the network was built with help from dozens of academic institutions, government agencies, and advanced technology companies.

—Development of a wireless Internet information system for paramedics, firefighters, and other “first responders’ in disasters, using $4 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health. Smarr says this program in particular represents CalIT2′s penchant for collaboration because “who else is going to do research for the first responders? Nobody. So CalIT2 took it.”

At lunch, Dynes said such multi-disciplinary, inter-campus institutes have become the University of California incubators where “innovation really happens.” Dynes also recalled with a laugh that in mid-2000, he had urged then-Gov. Davis to support funding for the proposed institutes while they were both attending the inauguration of Mexican President Vicente Fox in Mexico City.

“The way Gray Davis talks, I was practically twisting his arm,” Dynes said. “Now I think he views the UC institutes he created as his legacy legacy.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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