San Diego, Pond Scum, and Crude Oil: Our Mayor Issues an Invitation to Sloganeers

7/21/10Follow @bvbigelow

Sometimes in this job, the stuff you hear just seems too good to be true. Like when the mayor of San Diego invites members of an audience to suggest a slogan more exciting than the one he came up with: “When you think of pond scum, think of San Diego.”

It’s not often that the mayor of a major city serves up an opportunity to respond to something like that.

Yet that’s pretty much what San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders did in public remarks last week at an event that Synthetic Genomics organized to mark the first anniversary of its partnership with the oil giant ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM). The San Diego startup is getting at least half of the $600 million that ExxonMobil is spending to develop algae that could someplace replace crude oil as a refinery raw material for the production of diesel, gasoline, and jet fuel.

There are thousands of different types of algae, so the task of identifying—or genetically engineering—the ideal algal species for making biofuels still represents a huge scientific challenge. Still, if all goes as planned, our next generation of transportation fuels could someday come from ordinary pond scum.

So it was a proud mayor who stepped to the microphone following a few introductory comments by J. Craig Venter, the human genome pioneer who is Synthetic Genomics’ CEO and co-founder.

Mayor Jerry Sanders

Mayor Jerry Sanders

“Our region, the San Diego region, has been able to gain stature as a hub for biofuels,” Mayor Sanders said. “We have more than 20 companies right now working on alternative fuels—including fuels made from used cooking oil, plant-based fuels, and then the micro-algae research being done right here. Between our first-rate research universities—UCSD and San Diego State University—and all of the research institutions up here on Torrey Pines Mesa, we believe that San Diego will soon be synonymous with alternative energy and biofuels.”

The mayor then went on to make a little joke—which now must seem like a soft pitch down the middle of the strike zone to wordsmiths everywhere.

“Now we’re still working on our slogan, after our initial efforts failed to generate excitement,” Sanders said. “So if anyone can think of something more exciting than, ‘When you think of pond scum, think of San Diego,’ we’d appreciate some help on that.”

Amid the polite laughter that ensued, an idea was born. Let’s ask the gentle readers of Xconomy to take up the offer that hizzoner so generously extended!

But first a little background.

As a popular convention and tourist destination, San Diego has promoted itself since 1972 as “America’s Finest City.” But truth be told, financial mismanagement of the city pension fund since the tech boom of the 1990s prompted a few cynics and local pols to embrace “Enron by the Sea” as a more appropriate slogan.

As industry slogans go, many regions have tried, but few have gained the currency of a golden nickname like Silicon Valley. God knows we have tried. We have winced our way over the past two decades through advertising campaigns that spent millions of dollars to brand San Diego as “Telecom Valley,” “Biotech Beach,” and “Technology’s Perfect Climate,” among other things. For whatever reason, sunburn on a tourist seems to last longer.

Outside of San Diego, a shortage of imagination and an excess of imitation have resulted in regional nicknames that try a little too hard to capture some of that silicon magic. The list of wannabes includes Silicon Alley (New York), Silicon Forest (Portland, OR), Silicon Wadi (Israel), Silicon Beach (Australia), Silicon Saxony (Germany), and Silicon Prairie (South Dakota, Illinois, or Dallas-Fort Worth, TX, take your pick). Wikipedia even has a list of places with “silicon” names.

Pond Scum

Pond Scum

So in accepting Mayor Sanders’ invitation to coin a biofuels slogan for San Diego, bear in mind that the bar has been set pretty low. Feel free to submit your suggestions in our comment section below. And even though we’re talking here about pond scum as a sustainable substitute for petroleum feedstock, don’t get too crude and unrefined.

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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  • b_e

    My suggestions:

    America’s Scummiest City
    San Diego: America’s Koi Pond
    The City that Runs on Sunshine
    San Diego: Land of Toilet to Tank
    Pond Scum: The San Diego Treat!
    There’s a Bit of San Diego in Every Pool
    San Diego: Not Just for Whirligigs and Mosquito Larvae
    San Diego Runs on Nori

  • Steve Speer

    San Diego Pacific Protozoan Zone

  • Geo. Gregoire

    “San Diego’s Bio Beach”

  • http://www.sdponds.com Jason

    As a small business owner, I will be monitoring this closely.