Mr. Bock Goes to Washington, and Takes His Science Expo with Him
By Kelly Thornton
By the time Larry Bock was 46, he’d founded or financed 40 high technology and life science companies worth billions. It was time to catch waves on his surf kayak and travel the world.
But a yearlong trip to Europe with his family in 2006 changed all that. In Cambridge, England, Bock happened upon a science festival, a family-friendly event full of gee whizzes and science luminaries.
He was captivated. We need to do this in San Diego, he thought. We need to get young people excited about science and engineering.
People who know him would agree that when Larry Bock sets his mind on something — get out of the way. With his passion, drive and financial commitment, it’s no surprise that his science festival in San Diego was a success from the get-go.
What is noteable is that Bock is no longer part of the local celebration. After one grand success, he took his vision — and millions of dollars — to Washington, D.C., where the President introduced Bock’s first national science expo.
Bock insists he didn’t want to leave. And he bemoans what could have been for San Diego if he’d stayed. Bock’s is the story of what happens when an entrepreneur who thinks big and detests rules meets a large and established bureaucracy.
There is bound to be blood on the floor.
Bock was born in Brooklyn. A science geek from a young age, one of his fondest memories from high school is anesthetizing and performing surgery on rats, an opportunity most kids never get. He earned a degree in biochemistry and an M.B.A. He dreamed of becoming a doctor.
Despite a 3.54 GPA and numerous recommendations, he was rejected by 14 medical schools. His dad, a stock broker, suggested he take his science background in another direction.
“In retrospect God kind of had his hand on my shoulder,” Bock said. “I ended up as an early employee of the first major biotechnology company in the world.”
That company was Genentech, in San Francisco, where he worked on vaccines for Foot and Mouth Disease and projects related to insulin and human growth hormone. Bock had been rejected for that job too, at first. “I kept forcing myself on them until they finally took me.”
With talents in both science and business, Bock was a natural in the whirlwind, cut-throat world of emerging technologies.
He created his first company – Athena Neurosciences – at age 28 — took it public and sold it for $660 million. Bock moved to San Diego and went on to create dozens more companies. One of his biggest successes was Illumina Inc., the multi-billion-dollar San Diego-based gene sequencing company.
He was called the “stealth biotech billionaire” in a 1994 story by Venture Capital Journal, which named him one of the “Ten Most Influential Venture Capitalists.”
Each of Bock’s new ventures was grounded in science, so it was natural that he would embark on a mission to share that zeal. With a science festival, Bock wanted to inspire students the same way he was inspired – through teachers, experiences and interaction with role models.
Bock envisioned the expo to do for science and engineering what ComiCon did for superheros.
“I’m trying to create a profound experience, and bring students in contact with role models of science,” he said. “Most people can’t name a famous scientist. You’re lucky if they think of Albert Einstein.”
After having a hand in steering companies, Bock, the entrepreneur, never imagined that putting on a science festival could get so complicated and political, particularly once a government grant was involved.
But “the grant,” one insider said, “became the tail that wagged the dog.”
San Diego’s first festival of science was in the spring of 2009.
Bock, who lives in Olivenhein, had joined forces with UC San Diego. He put up $150,000 and raised $550,000 more from his contacts in the business world.
The festival exceeded expectations on all fronts. Bock, who worked for free as the organizer, had hoped 15,000 would attend. More than 100,000 showed up. Traffic at Balboa Park, where the expo was held, was backed up for miles on the 163.
The free event targeted kids from elementary through high school, and with Bock’s considerable influence he recruited Nobel laureates, renowned scientists and corporate sponsors – including defense giant Lockheed Martin, which kicked in $25,000 to start.
The company was so impressed with the festival plans, it increased its support to $100,000. At the same time, Bock and UC San Diego applied for a National Science Foundation grant, funded by the federal government.
The NSF came through with a five-year, $3 million grant in time for the second San Diego festival. The money was divided among four institutions for these events across the country. San Diego’s take was $600,000. For the second festival, Bock had already offered to donate $200,000 and his time, plus $325,000 he’d already raised from the science community.
Things looked great from the outside. But behind the scenes, it was ugly.
Several people with knowledge of the situation said Bock and the university clashed at every turn. Neither side would give way.
UCSD was rigid and unappreciative, Bock said. “I think they thought I was a difficult person. I am a difficult person,” he said. “I’m difficult because I demand perfection and I’m passionate about it. And I don’t want to do anything second rate.”
“If we had an exhibitor who was doing a science demonstration with candy,” Bock said, “they wanted us to fill out a whole set of forms showing they were not utilizing any toxic materials even though it was probably being done with pop rocks and water.”
UC San Diego officials, including former Chancellor Marye Anne Fox, declined to be interviewed for this story.
But a senior university administrator, who, like others, asked to not to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the slow-moving, bureaucratic university was trying to enforce strict rules and conditions of federal funding, and Bock was balking at – and breaking – those rules.
Duane Roth, a science festival board member and CEO of CONNECT, a non-profit that provides support for high-tech and bio-tech companies and links them to investors,said Bock was understandably frustrated with all the red tape that comes with a federal grant. But the university, he said, as a recipient of the federal grant, was required to comply.
“It was his vision from the beginning,” Roth said of Bock. “He approached the university, applied for a grant, won the grant.”
As for Bock being “difficult,” Roth said: “I have never met anyone who gets things done that you wouldn’t consider a little difficult. That just comes with it. It’s because they know what to do. They’re impatient and they drive and they push. You can see how that runs into any kind of bureaucracy that puts up rules and regulations.”
Bock and UCSD parted before the second festival opened in 2010. He headed east with his headlining sponsor, Lockheed Martin, to create the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C.
If funding, scope and attendance are any measure, Bock’s national festival dwarfed the San Diego version.
UC San Diego went on to organize three festivals, including this year’s event in March. The university passed the festival over to the BIOCOM Institute, a nonprofit that connects academia with the life science industry, for 2013 and beyond.
But losing Bock was a costly move for UC San Diego and, subsequently, for Biocom. It also cost the University of California dearly.
Bock and the UC system became locked in a legal dispute over the rights to website domain names and the official name of the festival. As a result, Bock, who’d donated $300,000 to endow a chair at UC Berkeley, halted additional donations, reasoning that he didn’t want to finance the system’s lawyers to work against him. Ultimately he just dropped the legal action and started from scratch.
UCSD pushed Bock out when he was already offering them $525,000 plus a promise of even more fundraising. Bock said that’s more than what UCSD raised in that year without him. And, he said, they had to hire someone to do the job he’d offered to do for free.
“We really would have been able to take it to the next major level. Instead they went downhill.
Ray O. Johnson, senior vice president and chief technology officer for Lockheed Martin, the festival’s main sponsor, encouraged Bock to take the festival to a new level in the nation’s capital. It launched in October 2010 on the National Mall, introduced by President Obama.
“Stick with Larry Bock and you’ll be successful,” Johnson said. “Larry brings an enthusiasm, a passion and energy that is unmatched by anyone I’ve ever worked with.”
Lockheed Martin supports the festival as a way to interest students in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics, areas crucial to the nation’s competitiveness.
The company donated $350,000 for the first Washington event and $1.25 million for the second held in April. For the third year, Lockheed will contribute $1.8 million.
The USA Science and Engineering Festival this spring culminated with a free, family-oriented expo that offered 1,500 exhibits, 3,000 hands-on activities and more than 150 live performances by science celebrities, explorers, best-selling authors, entrepreneurs and world-renowned experts.
Even President Obama’s daughters participated in the “Nifty Fifty” part of the festival that sends noted scientists and engineers into area schools in the months preceding the expo. The daughters attended a session at their school with Beth Shapiro, one of the top scientists in the emerging field of ancient DNA. She isolates DNA from prehistoric mammals like wooly mammoths and mastodons.
Bock raised $2.2 million for the first festival in Washington, and $2.65 million for the second. Some 250,000 people attended the finale, a three-day expo in April.
A press release said San Diego’s festival in March had 140 booths and a handful of stage shows. An estimated 27,000 attended the festival in San Diego, which still was the largest festival of its kind in Southern California.
Bock, who admits he is “disgruntled,” said he was pushed out by a greedy university that wanted to control the grant money.
“I think they made a mistake,” he said. “I think we made Washington, D.C., the center of science festivals and that could have been San Diego.”
UC San Diego and BIOCOM don’t want to talk about the past.
In a prepared statement, the university said, “UC San Diego has had a positive experience in working with the San Diego Festival of Science & Engineering and looks forward to participating in the future as the BIOCOM Institute takes over for 2013.”
In a March 29 press release announcing the change, the university’s executive vice chancellor of Academic Affairs, Suresh Subramani, said the university is “known for its entrepreneurial spirit and enjoys a proven track record in incubating, then spinning off, successful organizations and businesses including CONNECT and Qualcomm, among others.”
BIOCOM officials also offered up a statement.
It said, in part: “The BIOCOM Institute looks forward to producing this regionally significant project and to promoting the Festival through its year round focus on STEM education. The Institute is well suited financially and organizationally to take on and grow the San Diego Festival of Science and Engineering. This expanded partnership will help industry strengthen ties to schools, teachers and students.”
The split between Bock and UC San Diego roiled the science, technology, engineering and math community.
Nancy Taylor, executive director of the San Diego Science Alliance, a nonprofit that works to improve K-12 science, technology, engineering and math education in the county, said, “There are many people who appreciate Larry’s work style and Larry’s tireless work on this issue and there remain some people who have been offended by that same work style.”
Her own experience with Bock, she said, “is that he is a high energy innovator, he thinks out of the box, he pushes us all to think differently about how to inspire, how to engage.”
In the big picture, Taylor said, “I don’t think Larry’s experience (with the university and the federal grant) is unique.”
“I will say that we are in very challenging times with grant funding. There are a lot of requirements many of those requirements have the effect of slowing down innovation and I can see that’s what would frustrate Larry.”
Taylor believes handing over the festival to BIOCOM is positive.
“I’ll just say that UCSD’s business is higher education and this work to benefit the community may not have been a good match between UCSD and Larry Bock to begin with.”
The university administrator says the festival story illustrates a larger issue.
“The U.S. has a pipeline problem when it comes to kids going into science. That’s why what Larry’s doing isn’t trivial. It’s not like summer camp ‘kumbaya’ stuff. It’s really core to what our nation is trying to address and our region is trying to address in terms of turning kids on to science and technology.
“ It’s such a high priority for society and the university. We’ve got to find ways to partner.”
“Without intending to, the university may have driven out a very important innovative opportunity,” the administrator said. Bock’s wild success in Washington “speaks volumes to me about the hunger in communities for these kinds of experiences. That’s why I feel it’s a loss.”
Kelly Thornton, an Investigative Newsource reporter, can be reached at [email protected]