A New Age in Aerospace & Other Takeaways from the Rock Stars Summit

4/16/13
The Rock Stars of Innovation Summit

The Rock Stars of Innovation Summit

'The Imitators' at the opening night venture jam

3D Robotics CEO Chris Anderson

3D Robotics CEO Chris Anderson

Gretchen at your service

Gretchen at your service

CEO Matthias Merten with Gretchen, the robot

Connect CEO Duane Roth

Connect CEO Duane Roth

Impromptu Consult

Impromptu Consult

Devang Thakkar of DCM Consulting with Battelle's Bhima Vijayendran

Nasseo CEO Garrett Smith

Nasseo CEO Garrett Smith

Soccerly Co-Founder Miguel Ramirez Lombana

Soccerly Co-Founder Miguel Ramirez Lombana

 Z-Integrated Digital Technologies

Z-Integrated Digital Technologies

Jeffrey Travis (left) and Ben Zin

Confab

Confab

Stephen Williams of SENTRE Partners (left) Malin Burnham, & Diego Miralles of Janssen Labs

Innovation band

Innovation band

Xconomy founder Bob Buderi (left), Kevin Carroll of Connect, Charles Gillespie of Semantic Research

As the editor in chief of Wired magazine for a dozen years, Chris Anderson was in the enviable position of seeing over the horizon and anticipating how innovation is changing our lives.

So would you take heed if Anderson said an industrial revolution is imminent in aerospace innovation? Indeed, more than 200 people were spellbound as Anderson described his vision for a new age in aviation at the “Rock Stars of Innovation Summit,” held Friday at the Hard Rock Hotel in downtown San Diego. He described the coming revolution in DIY drones as a “Cambrian moment”—an allusion to a critical period of intense biological proliferation and diversification that began some 570 million years ago.

Anderson, who left Wired last year to step in as CEO of the drone maker 3D Robotics, also sees a potential revolution in American manufacturing in the Tijuana-San Diego corridor—where he says the United States has its best chance at achieving cost parity with China. Lowering production costs, however, would require solving business bottlenecks like the border crossing at San Ysidro, which can take hours to get through. If he could get two minutes with President Obama, Anderson said he would tell the president, “If you want manufacturing to come back to America—fix the borders.”

Innovation, diversity, and collaboration also were apparent throughout the half-day summit organized by Connect, the nonprofit industry group supporting technology and entrepreneurship, and co-hosted by Xconomy. San Diego showed it is not a cluster of big companies, but a melting pot of entrepreneurs and nimble startups that invent, adapt, and partner to push their own boundaries—and the boundaries of the region. Here are five takeaways from the day:

—As the CEO of 3D Robotics, Anderson described an imminent world of inexpensive, personalized, and de-militarized drones. He also listed some innovative ways his “autopilot machines” are being used. In Hollywood, filmmakers are using drones in the air and on the ground, to film from every angle; In agriculture, drones are being used for climate surveys, pest reports, and rapid-response crop spraying; In sports, from professional windsurfing to your child’s soccer game, it’s now possible for a drone to hover above the action and transmit live video footage to your smart phone; In science, collecting climate data from remote Antarctic icebergs, and quietly observing the nests of endangered birds; And in making special deliveries, sending medical packages to remote regions of the globe, far from airfields and infrastructure.

It might be disconcerting to imagine drones conducting aerial surveillance outside your window, but as with the Internet, Anderson said he believes regulations will adapt and the good will far outweigh the bad.

—An unusually animated and personable German roamed the hotel foyer. Her name is Gretchen, and she is a free-navigating service robot created by MetraLabs GmbH. The German company recently opened an office in San Diego, as part of a global sales expansion. MetraLabs robots can be customized to work in manufacturing, provide elderly assistance, and perform other duties.

—In a crossfire talk on digital health, venture investor Lisa Suennen of Northern California’s Psilos Group declared that the specialized sector is in a speculative bubble. Rick Valencia, the vice president and general manager of Qualcomm Life, said he thinks it’s too early to tell. Together, Suennen and Valencia offered some guidance through the hype: Look for innovation arising from within health care itself, rather than from the tech/mobile side. Avoid niche products and markets; look for enterprise. The true success stories will fix real problems in the healthcare system, improve efficiency, efficacy, and open up new streams of revenue. Hospitals and insurers will pick up the tab; most consumer-focused models will fail.

DermTech International, a San Diego startup, gave a “Garage Band” pitch for a new diagnostic technology for melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. Instead of a biopsy, DermaTech collects a sample of genetic material on tape pressed against the skin. With lab processing, the genetic material can indicate if the sample is malignant, with 97 percent sensitivity and 71 percent specificity. Results are processed in 48-hours, at a total cost of $400. The presenter, medical advisor Howard Robin, said DermTech is seeking $3 million by the end of the year, for a soft launch in 2014.

—The Rock Stars of Innovation Summit opened and closed with keynote speakers commenting about the diversity and international pull of the region. The closing speaker, Napoleone Ferrara, who is senior deputy director for basic sciences at the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, discussed his decades of work identifying the role of Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor A (VEGF-A) in angiogenesis—the formation of new blood vessels that supply nutrients to tumors. His findings led to the development of the blockbuster cancer drug bevacizumab (Avastin), and Ferrara was awarded the inaugural Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for his work earlier this year.

Juliet Preston is a San Diego science writer.