As many know, San Diego is enjoying a growth spurt in a number of innovation fields, so it’s good to know that San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer was a science major in college.
Um, check that: Actually, he was a political science major.
Is he poised to lead a city that’s quickly becoming a tech hub? Here’s one red flag. He could not answer this simple question, which we posed to him:
“What’s oligonucleotide therapy?”
In all seriousness, Faulconer has inherited something of a windfall: a growing, fascinating innovation economy that appears primed to become an even more significant part of our region as we move forward.
Faulconer is very aware — and actually in awe — of what’s unfolding. He can rattle off the many industries that have taken root in San Diego, from life sciences to cybersecurity to wireless to medical device manufacturing. He’s making it a priority to do whatever he can to continue the momentum, he said.
“We are becoming a nationwide and a worldwide hub in many of these areas, and that is something I do not take for granted,” he said. “That is something that requires a lot of nurturing and fighting for.”
Speaking from his City Hall office — where laboratory equipment hummed and beeped (no, not really) — he said he feels he’s in a special position at a special time.
“It’s actually one of the most unique parts of my job — the ability not only to be exposed to this world-class innovation but to help drive it and capitalize on it,” he said.
So, there he was in New York City last year, touting San Diego’s growing innovative economy and its many positives. He was interviewed by The New York Times, CNN Money, Fortune and other leading media outlets.
Part of the reason for his trip was to dispel the notion that San Diego remains hobbled by the notorious employee pension crisis. The New York Times once famously described San Diego as “Enron by the Sea.”
“Things are exploding in innovation and creativity-wise here in San Diego,” he said. “If we’re not out there telling our story, no one is.”
He’s also been quick to tout and embrace Tijuana’s role in the evolving tech economy. Much manufacturing is being done in the border city, and that’s an invaluable asset for San Diego companies “We have the ecosystem of innovation,” Faulconer said. “We have drivers like our research institutions. That drives so many other companies. We have the incubator talent setting that is hard to match.”
Plus, he noted, “This also happens to be a pretty nice place to live.”
Yep. We’ve got sunshine. And craft beer. Innovative craft beer, no less. For instance, Green Flash Brewery has its Genius Lab, where employees come up with ideas for new beers, such as Cosmic Ristretto, which is described as a “java-centric Baltic Porter with Espresso.”
Is this a magical time or what?
Faulconer, a former eight-year City Council member, has always championed business growth. But his district was mostly the beach areas, where you find a lot of bars and tattoo shops — not high-tech enterprises. However, it did include downtown, which a number of start-ups call home. The scene, though, was nothing compared to the Torrey Pines and Sorrento Mesa areas, where hundreds of biotech firms are located.
And then Faulconer became mayor … (which is a whole other story). With that came a broader view of the tech scene.
“Without question, my own personal knowledge base and the importance of (high-tech) have grown exponentially, as soon as I took the oath of office as mayor,” he said. “And it’s one of the things I made a priority, because I quickly saw not only the tremendous growth but the fact the sky is the limit on continuing that growth.”
To educate himself, he visits a tech company at least once a month, he said. He goes both to learn more about what they do and to see if they have any needs the city can help with. “Because this is about growing jobs,” he said. “These are good, quality jobs for San Diegans.”
He’s done more than just act as a cheerleader. He helped orchestrate a deal in 2014 that kept Illumina, the genome-sequencing firm, in San Diego. The company, which does more than $1 billion a year in revenue, is receiving $1.5 million in tax rebates in exchange for staying in the city for the next 10 years. It had considered expanding elsewhere.
While some critics called it an example of corporate welfare, the deal was lauded by many because it preserved high-paying jobs. Illumina employs 1,400 people.
“For every one of those jobs, you can count on another two or three more jobs that are depending on the spending and the dollars that it brings into the region,” National University economist Kelly Cunningham told KUSI-TV at the time.
Indeed, Cunningham did a study that showed the tech sector helped lead San Diego out of the recession. It led all sectors in job growth. It’s now responsible for 12 percent of San Diego’s gross domestic product. Sure, tourism is a major player, but most tourism-related jobs don’t pay enough for workers to afford San Diego’s housing costs. Tech sector jobs average $114,000 annually.
“We’re talking about good, quality careers,” Faulconer said.
San Diego is hardly alone in having high-tech clusters that help energize the local economy. So strengthening them, helping them grow and attracting more companies is key.
“We’re in a competitive market,” Faulconer said. “We’re competing against Boston, San Francisco, San Antonio. I never forget that. I think its incumbent upon me, as mayor of the city, not only to fight for innovation companies, but even small entrepreneur mom-and-pops, from Barrio Logan to Mira Mesa.”
Many in the tech world praise Faulconer.
“Mayor Faulconer embodies his famous phrase, ‘San Diego is open for business,’” said Greg McKee, CEO of the tech accelerator CONNECT. “He has been instrumental in aligning the efforts of business organizations such as CONNECT, the Chamber of Commerce, Biocom and the EDC (San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp.), which are critical to creating and scaling our vibrant, innovative ecosystem in San Diego.”
When running for office, Faulconer was endorsed by Biocom, the trade organization that represents life science companies in San Diego. It has no regrets.
“(Faulconer) understands the large role that life sciences plays in the health of the local economy and how the industry is a linchpin in driving innovation in the region, said Joe Panetta, CEO of Biocom.
Faulconer would like to see the tech sector expand. He sees no reason why it can’t be attracted to San Diego’s District 4, one of the region’s more economically disadvantaged communities. There’s land available there that’s suitable for light manufacturing and research.
“I’m really trying to continue the positive momentum and to make sure every San Diego neighborhood can benefit from it,” he said. “That’s our next challenge for our expansion in our region.”
Another of his quests is to educate young people about the innovative economy and to help prepare them for jobs in the sector. He praised Qualcomm’s Thinkabit Lab program, where children from grades 6 through 8 participate in classes led by Qualcomm engineers. They learn about coding and experiment with robotics through crafts.
Faulconer is replicating the model and has a goal of opening five labs this year in San Diego industries that are growing and hiring. Children may have no idea that this world exists — right in their back yard, he said.
“They don’t know about genometics; they don’t know about robotics,” he said. “Exposing San Diegans to the world of the innovation economy that’s happening right here … I feel so strongly about that.”