What Top SoCal Innovation Thought-Leaders Discuss Over Dinner
By Andy Wilson
What happens when you gather a Nobel Prize winner, CEOs of highly successful start-ups, and industry leaders for a delicious meal and a thoughtful discussion about innovation? We found out earlier this summer as we gathered a distinguished group of guests at the historic Hale Solar Laboratory for the first of a series of intimate SoCal innovation leadership dinners. The site is a local architectural gem, tucked away on a tree lined residential street in Pasadena, in the private backyard of distinguished local architects Stefanos Polyzoides and Elizabeth Moule.
Our evening’s guest of honor was Frances Arnold, 2018 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry and Professor of Engineering and Bioengineering at Caltech. Other guests included Julie Miller-Phipps, President of Kaiser Permanente Southern California; Michael Phipps, President & CTO at Collaborative Innovation Partners; Bassil Dahiyat, CEO of Xencor; Steve Flagg, CEO & Founder of Supplyframe; Hallie Kuhn, Principal at Alexandria Venture Investments; Michael Lykoudis, Dean of the School of Architeture at Notre Dame; Sean Moriarty, CEO of Leaf Group; Carl Schoelhammer, Founder & COO at Suono Bio; and John Suh, CEO of LegalZoom.
In a magical setting amongst mature Engelmann oaks, enjoying a delicious farm-to-table meal, the group discussed the elements that define a vibrant innovation ecosystem. The discussion was far reaching, delving into topics ranging from the evolution of Southern California’s innovation landscape to the need to be connected to global markets and global talent. In this post, I summarize some of the themes that emerged during our spirited dinner discussion.
Themes on Innovation
Innovation Requires Diversity
Frances Arnold kicked off our discussion with reflections on her work in the context of innovation ecosystems. Arnold explained “biology is the best innovator and the history of innovation is evolution.” Yet, she noted that “without diversity in evolution you get extinction.”
Diversity is the fuel of innovation and variation drives evolution, she explained. Taking this approach to the lab, one needs a large number of people taking creative approaches to difficult problems to create a scientific breakthrough. A room of clones looking at something from the same perspective will not yield innovation breakthroughs. The group also discussed the importance of chance, recognizing that “without chance, innovation does not happen.”
The group consensus was that innovation is not achieved by rigid engineering, but through a system that enables experimentation. Individual innovators will succeed or fail, but the system must allow for on-going experimentation. It is the ecosystem that allows this experimentation to occur.
Innovation Requires Risk Taking
The group also discussed the importance of risk taking. Failure is central to learning, and the process of failing and coming back from failure is what drives science and discovery. At the company or ecosystem level that means making strategic bets on unconventional or diverse possibilities. Risk-taking is imperative to driving innovation.
The group recognized that a supportive culture and institutions are required for risk taking. John Suh of LegalZoom pointed out that most people are “taught to be afraid of failure. Rarely can you be great the first time [you try something].” Startups are hard work, can be discouraging, and often end in failure. Entrepreneurs need a community that not only celebrate their successes, but also supports them and picks them up (and hires them) after they fail.
Is this SoCal’s Breakthrough Moment?
Hallie Kuhn from Alexandria Venture Investments remarked that she was excited to relocate from Boston to Southern California to be part of a developing ecosystem noting that something vibrant is happening in Southern California. In her field of bioscience, four wet lab spaces have opened in the LA area in the last year. These spaces are the basic infrastructure needed to enable discovery and development of therapies in the life science and biotech fields.
Others agreed that SoCal was becoming increasingly vibrant and is developing the infrastructure needed to support entrepreneurs and innovation in various fields ranging from consumer tech to deep tech. Participants recognized that SoCal’s strength is its diversity. SoCal is an ethnically diverse region populated by immigrants from around the world, has a highly diverse industrial base, and enjoys broad geographic diversity, stretching from Santa Barbara to San Diego. As region characterized by diversity along all of these different lines, SoCal is primed to drive the next wave of innovation.
Some compared SoCal’s strengths to other innovation hubs, noting that Northern California’s costs have increased dramatically, making it difficult to scale companies and retain talent. Others noted the lack of diversity of thought in Northern California, which is a reflection of a more homogenous labor pool and replication of proven patterns for success. Some in the group also noted the sectoral diversity of the startup landscape across the SoCal region. One guest noted that Silicon Beach tends to be heavy in consumer facing tech, while downtown LA and Pasadena tend to have deeper tech startups.
Immigration and Innovation
The discussion shifted to immigration issues, with many noting how crucial globally sourced talent is to innovation. Many were concerned that the current direction of U.S. immigration policies has the potential to “choke” innovation. One guest reflected on how essential immigrants are for building transformational companies — whether it was Google’s immigrant founders or the hundreds of less well-known immigrant tech founders who start companies in the U.S. each year. As one guest remarked, many of the partners at venture capital firm Sequoia were born outside the U.S. and they often favor investing in immigrant-founded companies.
Talented people working in startups and labs are needed to help produce innovation. If talented people are not able to access the visas they need to enter the U.S. or are unable to stay after completing their education at U.S. universities, those people will build their technologies and companies elsewhere. Obviously, if this challenge is not addressed, there will be profound downstream implications for the future of our innovation economy.
U.S. Position in the Global Innovation System
Finally, some wondered if the U.S. is losing ground as the best place to be an entrepreneur and to innovate. Countries from Israel to India are important sources of tech talent and innovation. Emerging economies like India and China have developed rapidly based in part on their ability to move into value intensive sectors of the economy. Now a rising number of countries are moving into R&D and innovation. Dinner participants reflected on the rapid move of China into drug discovery and development in recent years. The consensus that emerged, however, was that the U.S. isn’t necessarily becoming less innovation-friendly; rather, other regions of the world are getting better and we are progressing less quickly as we are more mature.
Who’s coming to dinner?
Our dinner guests very much enjoyed the opportunity to discuss topics related to innovation with their peers in a unique setting. Not only were participants energized by the discussion but also valued the opportunity to connect and establish new relationships with others who share a common passion for driving innovation forward in the region. Given the success of our first Innovation Dinner, I plan to host similar events in the future. If you are a leader committed to driving innovation in SoCal and have interest in attending one of our future dinners please reach out to me (firstname.lastname@example.org). I am especially interested in hearing from successful startup founders, top institutional leaders and corporate executives who want to stay engaged in this important conversation in hopes of moving this innovation agenda forward.