Duane Roth: The Connector Who Wired Up a Regional Innovation Economy

8/12/13Follow @bvbigelow

The seating capacity of the University of San Diego’s Church of the Immaculata is approximately 900, and it is telling that the memorial service held late Friday morning for Connect CEO Duane Roth was standing room only.

The Spanish style church on the USD campus is one of the biggest in San Diego. Somber guests stood in small groups within the 20 side chapels along the central nave. People also spilled out of the doorways. They lined the walls of the cross-shaped church, which is 200 feet long and 148 feet wide across the transcept. Former U.S. Senator Pete Wilson was there. So was Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, Gateway founder Ted Waitt, UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, former San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, and hundreds of other CEOs, scientists, entrepreneurs, and business leaders who came to pay their respects.

Roth’s untimely death on Aug. 3 was the result of a head injury he incurred in a July 21 bicycling accident. He was 63. San Diego’s business and political leaders turned out in droves because Roth touched so many people here.

“He showed the way, but he also cleared the space beneath the boards,” basketball legend Bill Walton said in a moving tribute after the memorial, at a reception held by the Roth family at the exclusive Valencia Resort in Rancho Santa Fe. “When things got tough, Duane was always the one who stepped to the fore and said, ‘I’ll take care of this.’”

Duane Roth

Duane Roth

Roth served the regional innovation community in many capacities—as a biotech CEO and as a member of many nonprofit boards overseeing San Diego’s biotech industry, economic development and policy, healthcare policy, stem cell development, university research, and technology innovation. His varied interests seemed to come together, though, in his role as the CEO of Connect, the San Diego nonprofit group established to promote technology innovation and entrepreneurship. His innate sense of purpose flourished at Connect, which became his bully pulpit, and the eight and a half years he spent there could serve as a case study in how to go about developing a regional innovation economy.

Roth came to San Diego with the 1989 merger of Otisville Biopharm of Otisville, NY, and Fluoromed Pharmaceutical of San Diego. The combined company, renamed Alliance Pharmaceutical, set out to commercialize oxygen-carrying perfluorochemicals as a way to supplement ventilation for patients in acute respiratory distress. He served as chairman and CEO of Alliance Pharmaceutical, but the public company was unable to win FDA approval for its LiquiVent and Oxygent products. By 2004, Roth was unwinding the business when he was approached to take over Connect, and Alliance eventually licensed its technology to PFC Development Corp. of Thousand Oaks, CA.

“Initially, he played from his strengths” in the life sciences industry, said Mary Walshok, a sociologist and the associate vice chancellor for public programs at UC San Diego. “But he broadened his relationships over time, because his role required him to. He became less of a biotech guy, and more of an innovation guy as time went on.”

Connect was founded in 1985 as a UCSD program under Walshok’s purview. It was a time when San Diego’s scientific community was isolated from the business community, and scientists showed little zeal for starting new companies. Walshok said Connect’s initial mission was to bring the worlds of elite scientists and entrepreneurs together.

Pete Wilson

Pete Wilson

The innovation community here faced a wholly different challenge when Roth took over Connect near the end of 2004. It was a post-Internet, post-human genome world—and Connect was a pale imitation of what it had been during the 1990s.

“Connect was basically bankrupt when he took over,” said David Hale, the veteran biotech industry executive and Connect board member who talked Roth into taking the job. “Through his sheer persistence and vision and commitment, and with help from the [Connect] board, we brought Connect back to be a very significant and important organization in the community—to support innovation in San Diego.”

Connect was nearly extinguished by the university that had helped to create it. In the years before Roth was named to lead Connect, then-UCSD Chancellor Robert Dynes had decided that Connect should work to benefit UCSD more directly. The problem with Dynes’ directive, Roth’s predecessor told me at the time, was that Connect’s funding came entirely from the San Diego business community. The group lost its relevance, and then it lost its financial support.

So Roth stepped in as a turnaround CEO, and one of his first moves was to uncouple Connect from UC San Diego. Instead of promoting innovation at UCSD, he broadened Connect’s mission by making the group more of a non-partisan advocate for innovation throughout the region. He began to forge links with all of San Diego’s elite research institutions—and in the process learned there were more than 60 of them throughout the region.

It was a logical move, but Roth’s prominence in the life sciences and high-level contacts enabled him to establish strong ties with The Scripps Research Institute, the Salk Institute, and what is now the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute. Along with those connections came new stakeholders and new investors, Walshok said.

Once California voters approved a 2004 ballot proposition that authorized the issuance of $3 billion in grants for stem cell R&D, Walshok said Roth also played a key role in bringing together UCSD, Scripps, Salk, and Sanford-Burnham to create the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine. In fact, Walshok doubts whether anyone but Duane Roth could have brought the four major research centers together.

In the Church Before Roth Memorial

In the Church Before Roth Memorial

“Duane in my mind was exceptional at making connections,” said Rear Adm. Dixon Smith, who recently completed an 18-month tour in San Diego as commander of the Navy Region Southwest, overseeing 10 naval bases in six Southwestern states (California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico). In a phone call from his new command in Norfolk, VA, Smith added, “He saw connections that other people didn’t, and he knew how to put people together to create win-win situations.”

Roth’s knack for seeing opportunities and putting people together helped to foster some unexpected synergies in such emerging industries as wireless health, cleantech, and a regional cluster of action sports companies, according to Walshok. He also led efforts to bring overseas manufacturing back to the U.S. through what he called “the Connect Nearsourcing Initiative.” To produce a more-comprehensive quarterly report on the status of San Diego’s innovation economy, Roth enlisted help from the San Diego Workforce Partnership, Point Loma Nazarene University, the Legler Benbough Foundation, National University, and others.

Walton, the NBA Hall of Famer who has led San Diego Sports Innovators as a division of Connect since 2010, said Roth became a business mentor to him. In his comments Friday afternoon, Walton said Roth inspired him to be a better person, and he counted Roth among the people who had the biggest influence on his life—a list that included his own father, UCLA coach John Wooden, sportscaster Chick Hearn, author David Halberstam, and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.

Smith and Walshok also gave Roth credit for bringing a better understanding of the military’s economic importance to the San Diego region, including the role that such military innovations as unmanned robotic aircraft and the global positioning system have had in the broader innovation economy.

“Duane’s unique gift was to redefine innovation of the 21st century,” said UCSD’s Walshok. “Connect was never a trade organization. He made Connect the advocate for innovation in general, and nowhere was that clearer than in creating an advocate for innovation in Washington D.C. who had access to think tanks and Congressional leaders.”

Hale agreed. “Duane made many trips—more than probably anybody realizes—to advocate the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship on the national economy,” Hale said. “He relished the complexity of public policy, and he had the vision and determination to move it forward.”

The result, Walshok said, was that “Connect became a kind of honest broker” in Washington D.C., helping to influence the JOBS Act (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) and in setting an “innovation agenda.” His influence also reached into places like Indiana and New York, Walshok said, as Cornell University and the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, laid their plans to create a $2 billion campus for technology innovation on Roosevelt Island in New York City.

If Roth can be faulted, it is perhaps for neglecting San Diego’s software and Internet sectors during his eight-plus years at Connect.

When Brant Cooper, an Encinitas, CA-based Web marketing consultant and lean startup advocate, laid out the innovators’ dilemma afflicting San Diego’s innovation establishment in a provocative blog post earlier this year, he lumped Duane Roth together with the leaders of other legacy tech organizations as part of what he called “the patriarch problem.” Cooper argued that the people who made their money riding bygone waves of innovation are now leading the legacy institutions supporting startup communities—and they just don’t get it.

Cooper’s critique was perhaps more valid for Web startups than other local sectors, especially in the wireless industry and life sciences. But of all the institutions that Cooper called out in his critique, Roth was the only innovation leader who asked to meet him.

“He went through somebody on their board who had worked with me,” Cooper recalled. “We discussed all sorts of things. He talked about what some of Connect’s larger roles were, above and beyond the Springboard program [a mentoring program for startup CEOs], their influence on the JOBS Act, and their role in the tech community. He admitted that the tech sector was one of the more challenging sectors for Connect, and he was appreciative of the work San Diego Tech Founders has done.

“In the end we probably agreed on more things than we disagreed,” Cooper said. Perhaps most importantly, Roth and Cooper agreed that innovation communities constantly need refreshing, with new ideas and new blood.

As an advocate for innovation, Roth was pragmatic and ecumenical. He worked with many people who disagreed with him, or held divergent views. Some of his closest friends, like Don Rosenberg, an executive vice president and general counsel at Qualcomm, and Dr. David Brenner, vice chancellor for health sciences and dean of the School of Medicine, voiced almost identical sentiments about their respective friendships with Roth.

“Duane and I were as different as two people can be,” Rosenberg said during his eulogy at the Church of the Immaculata. “Duane was born in Iowa, baptized in the Mennonite church, a Republican. And me, raised in Brooklyn, Jewish, a Democrat. We quickly learned we had more in common. We were kindred spirits. We liked the same things: Bikes, biking, cars, and people.”

Brenner, who described himself as a liberal democrat and Roth as “a very staunch Republican,” said they still shared great times together, often attending basketball games with Bill Walton and Roth’s brother Ted. “More than anybody else, he tried to make San Diego a hub for biomedical research and commercialization,” Brenner said in a phone interview.

Rosenberg said Roth also had encouraged him to participate in the “Million Dollar Challenge,” an annual 620-mile bike ride down the California coastline, from San Francisco to San Diego, to raise funding for the San Diego-based Challenged Athlete Foundation. They became bicycling buddies, and Rosenberg said, “We shared one of those friendships that was so comfortable that we didn’t feel the need for conversation.”

And they shared something else as well.

On July 21, 2011, Rosenberg said he was on a training ride with Roth and the Challenged Athlete Foundation when he crashed into a rock wall. He was severely injured, but Roth stayed by his side until the paramedics arrived and a life flight helicopter whisked him away. Exactly two years later to the day, Roth was on another training ride with the Challenged Athlete Foundation when he crashed into a rocky embankment, shattering his bicycle helmet. A life flight helicopter flew Roth to the UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest, where he remained in intensive care until he died. He never regained consciousness.

Duane J. Roth 1949-2013 (photo courtesy of Roth family)

Duane J. Roth 1949-2013 (photo courtesy of Roth family)

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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  • Karina Lion

    Bruce, This is a wonderful reportage about Duane, who was a friend and mentor. Thanks for your remembrance of his great contributions to our tech and bio community. Your compassionate coverage of his legacy and untimely passing have helped us get through this tragic loss. Regards, Karina Lion

  • Mark Leibowitz

    Bruce
    Thanks for this compelling description of the memorial and tribute to Duane’s contributions. I found the memorial to be very inspiring and hope that it will serve to motivate the San Diego innovation community to continue Duane’s work with renewed passion.
    Take care,
    Mark

  • Chris Stiehl

    I loved Duane as a friend, colleague and advisor in the work my wife and I did for CIRM. As Bruce reports here, Duane was always making connections and looking for ways for everyone to win. He gave you his full attention when you asked for his help. His response always considered all of those who may be affected by your actions, both now and in the future. One of our proudest accomplishments was having his support in our work to spread the good news about CIRM. We also saw he and Rene at charity events all over San Diego, often seeing him at two Galas on the same evening! He was a humble giant among men. He will be missed.