Connect Faces Challenge and Opportunity in CEO Search

Published in UT San Diego, September 9, 2013

Over the last 28 years, Connect has been one of the icons and key components in the growth of the technology and life sciences entrepreneurial community in San Diego.

Last month, its leader Duane Roth died tragically in a bicycle accident, and his death has left a huge gap in the organization and in the community. However, as is always the case with tectonic change, this situation has created a dialogue about what Connect should become in the next iteration and what kind of leader should take the helm.

Allow me to share some thoughts. My age begins with a six. The nominating committee of Connect has a tilt toward that number. The Connect board of directors (on which Barbara sits) has a tilt toward that number. So one key thought is simple. Younger.

I have come to terms in my own entrepreneurial efforts with the fact that I am simply not as aware of new trends, nor am I as receptive to those trends as I need to be. The world of technology is younger. I am blessed that Barbara, and I teach entrepreneurship at University of California San Diego’s von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center, where we meet the next generation of entrepreneurs. We love doing this because it keeps us in touch, and we might also find a bright student with a good idea that we can fund.

Now what about the venture community? In its early years, Connect and venture capital were inextricably linked. The startup world depended to a large extent on getting funded by venture capitalists in both San Diego and Silicon Valley. In 2000, San Diego had a number of venture firms. Today the number is much lower.

What has taken the place of venture capital is the rise of the angel investors and corporate and strategic investors. So the question is, “If the world of venture capital has changed, then shouldn’t Connect change along with it?” The original mission was to be an “incubator without walls.” The irony is that now there are numerous incubators with walls in San Diego. What was distant and complicated and uneven is now being offered relentlessly by a multitude of players. Everyone wants to find the next big thing.

And what about funding for Connect? The ecosystem of how Connect raises its money has changed as well. The original game plan was primarily based on funding from the service provider network. The service provider did it because it was the best and only pipeline to the talent, which would eventually hire them to do work. It was a logical way to source your customer. That has changed as well. Every service provider has access to the talent because it is now sponsoring and promoting every startup-incubator-accelerator-leadership-hackathon ad nauseam. So as Connect thinks about the future, it will inexorably have to think about money.

Then there is the problem of integrating the distinct needs of life sciences, digital media, software, telecom, mobile — the list goes on. One size does not fit all.

And finally — Silicon Valley. How do we in San Diego come to terms with our more powerful, wealthier, more relentless friends in Northern California? Where do we belong and how do we stay relevant to our constituents here?

Clearly, lots of challenges loom on the road ahead with no easy answers. I suggest that everyone involved in the search for Connect’s new CEO read “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton M. Christensen. We are facing one.

Rule No. 279

We used to make buggies and buggy whips. Now we make Teslas. But no matter, it’s still transportation.

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