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JAMES FLANIGAN

Southland's Tech Prowess Is in Partnerships

March 09, 1998|JAMES FLANIGAN

First, some perspective. Southern California, the vast region extending from Santa Barbara to San Diego and eastward to the Southwestern desert, is a major world-class economy with an annual output of goods and services approaching $500 billion.

It can lay claim to specializing not in one technology but many, from movies, television and multimedia to biomedical engineering, environmental science, telecommunications, computer networking and electronics for war and peace.

So why does the region want to give its technological base a name such as Tech Coast, or its multimedia prowess a label like Digital Coast?

Simple--for recognition. The names are a perfectly legitimate exercise in brand identity to tell a world of companies and talented people looking to invest, relocate or expand that this region is a center of technological activity. Other places less technologically deserving give themselves airs all the time.

And Southern California's campaign is needed all the more because national business magazines, when compiling their mindless lists of technological hot spots, routinely leave out this region.

If we hide our light under a bushel, we won't get the business.

But to better spread the word, we should understand what makes these new technological economies go--and how long this alchemy has resided in Southern California. The grandfather of high-tech industry resides here still, a few weeks shy of his 98th birthday. His name is Arnold O. Beckman, founder of Beckman Instruments, onetime professor of chemistry at Caltech.

Beckman pioneered the commercialization of university research in 1935, when he invented the Ph meter to help a friend measure the acetic acid in his lemon grove. It was the first of many world-class products from his inventive company. "Dave Packard [the late co-founder of Hewlett-Packard] told me he learned first from Beckman," said scientist Paul Silverman, who now heads the western region for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Beckman went on to endow universities and benefit entrepreneurs and the community. He believed in sharing knowledge.

Today the tradition continues in a buildup of biomedical research in Southern California that is astounding.

At UC Irvine, construction has begun on the Irvine Biomedical Research Center, a complex that will pursue research on genetics, cancer, immunology and other areas. An industrial park will adjoin the biomedical center to facilitate the commercialization of university science and aid the formation of companies.

The Claremont Colleges are adding a new college devoted to training engineers and executives to work in biomedicine.

Alfred E. Mann, an entrepreneur who created companies around heart pacemakers and insulin pumps, is donating $100 million to USC for an Institute of Biomedical Engineering. And he proposes to give another $100 million to UCLA for a similar institute. His purpose, he said, is to create "a bridge between academia and industry."

Well said. Mann understands that more than money is needed to build a nurturing environment for technological industry. Said Anna Lee Saxenian of UC Berkeley, author of "Regional Advantage," a study of Silicon Valley and Massachusetts' Route 128: "It takes openness between firms and between the education and business communities."

Southern California has the nation's outstanding example of such openness in the Connect program at UC San Diego. Twelve years ago, Connect's founder, William Otterson, brought together university researchers, major finance houses, venture capitalists, local entrepreneurs and big companies looking for partners.

And communications proved golden. Connect has served as midwife to the birth of hundreds of companies in biomedicine and telecommunications.

In Los Angeles, in Internet-related fields, James Larkin Jonassen has built New Media Roundtable from small dinner meetings of like-minded tinkerers into gatherings of 1,000 entrepreneurs, sharing ideas and contacts.

On the "101 Corridor" between Calabasas and Camarillo, computer-networking entrepreneurs are leaving one company to form another and another, building critical mass on an industrial frontier.

Rohit Shukla of the state-supported Los Angeles Regional Technology Alliance is extending the neighborhood worldwide through a Global Technological Alliance that links foreign markets to industry pioneers here.

So, what does it take beside knowledge, shared ideas and money to succeed in the new technological economy? It takes energetic people. And Southern California has always attracted dynamism in abundance, whether it was the flyboys of the 1920s and '30s who built the aerospace industry or the fabulous gamblers who earlier built our most spectacular and long-lived industry.

When Zukor, Mayer, Lasky, Fox, Laemmle and others fought one another and learned from one another as they built the movie business in the early years of this century, they gave us a model of how industries are formed and survive--in turmoil and adaptation.

Today Southern California has unprecedented numbers of ambitious immigrants, expanding centers of learning and research and industries on the cutting edge of all these technologies.

Blow our own horn? You bet. Southern California needs to alert the world that the explosion of inventiveness and industry that is going to occur here in the next decade and beyond will have to be seen to be believed.

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