A Light Goes Out: Some Reflections on the Passing of Duane Roth
I am saddened to report this morning that Connect CEO Duane Roth died Saturday at UC San Diego Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized since July 21 after sustaining a head injury while bicycling in the Cuyamaca Mountains east of San Diego. He was 63.
In my conversations with his brother, Ted Roth, it seemed that Duane’s condition was improving, and he would recover. I am stunned.
Duane Roth stepped in to lead Connect in the fall of 2004, at a time when the nonprofit organization was adrift and sinking. Connect was established under the auspices of the UC San Diego Extension with the idea of helping elite scientists make the connections they needed to start a company and commercialize their breakthrough discoveries and ideas.
Connect was in dire straits when Roth took over. The group that had gained renown in the 1990s as the accelerator for innovation in San Diego had lost key financial support from some of the biggest companies it had helped create. “I wish it weren’t so, but in a way we’re starting over again,” Mary Walshok, the UCSD associate vice chancellor who oversaw Connect, told me at the time.
In a testament to Roth—and a sign of the respect he engendered in the business community—he raised $250,000 in his first three months on the job. It was more than Connect had been able to raise in the previous year, and gave him the breathing room he needed to secure the group’s continuing financial support and lead a reorganization that moved Connect outside of UCSD’s organizational structure and influence.
Roth was a big thinker. When I sat down with him in early 2005 to talk about his turnaround plan, he sketched out his conceptual ideas on a whiteboard in blue ink—with big bubbles of organizational responsibility beneath an arc that he saw as Connect. What I extracted was that he wanted to restore what he called “the magic of Connect.”
I liked Roth because he respected my role as a journalist. He later told me that the story I wrote out of our interview had “helped,” even though he knew that was not my intent. He knew I could be critical as well, and he never expected my support.
When I joined Xconomy in late 2008, Roth quickly became one of our staunchest supporters. “Duane was not just a towering figure in San Diego,” Bob Buderi, Xconomy’s founder, CEO, and Editor in Chief, wrote in an e-mail this morning. “He was a champion of innovation everywhere and one of the best friends and partners Xconomy has ever had. I will miss him from the bottom of my heart.”
Roth immediately grasped the significance of what Xconomy was trying to accomplish, and how important our coverage of innovation would be to the startup community in San Diego. Remember that in the fall of 2008, we were all caught up in the fear and uncertainty of the financial crisis.
The meltdown on Wall Street shut down the capital flow for months, but it seemed especially severe in San Diego. Roth responded by working with the San Diego Venture Group to organize the La Jolla Research and Innovation Summit—and tapping genome pioneer J. Craig Venter and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs as speakers.
It was the kind of thing a true leader would do.
This only begins to explain why Connect cited John Steinbeck when it issued a statement yesterday on the passing of Duane Roth: “It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”
In its statement, Connect says it “has lost a champion and the community has lost a tireless advocate for big ideas—ideas that can truly enhance our region and our world. The moving tributes that are flooding the social media can only scratch the surface of how deeply we are saddened by the loss—too soon—of an incredible human being. Although ever alert to global issues of importance to San Diego and the entrepreneurial community he held so dear he was always there—making time in his superhuman schedule—to give guidance or help a friend in need.”
If you want to share your thoughts about Roth’s contributions to San Diego’s innovation community, they are welcome here. You can send them to me, or post them below.