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La Jolla Research and Innovation Summit Connects Business and Academia

Tiffany Fox | April 25, 2011

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Mike Norman, Director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center
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Core assets. Emergent technologies. Unprecedented opportunities.

Such phrases turned up again and again Thursday at the third annual La Jolla Research and Innovation Summit, as top research scientists from the University of California, San Diego and other local institutions met with venture capitalists to discuss the future of cleantech, biotech, wireless and information technologies.

The half-day,  invitation-only summit was held at the Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa and was hosted by CONNECT, a regional program that links inventors and entrepreneurs with the resources they need to commercialize their products by promoting collaborations between industry, venture capital sources and research organizations. UC San Diego was well-represented at the event, with faculty from eight academic departments and several UCSD-affiliated research institutions moderating panels or delivering presentations on some of the university’s most influential and collaborative research.

In his opening remarks, CONNECT CEO Duane Roth noted that there are more than 80 research institutes within a mile of one another on La Jolla’s Torrey Pines Mesa, most within walking distance of the research summit itself.

“That connectivity is what makes this region particularly interesting,” added Roth. “The people who come to La Jolla to develop these institutes are not leaving. The problem is, there are a lot more great ideas here than there is venture capital.”

The summit agenda focused on five well-funded areas of research currently underway in La Jolla and San Diego — each with significant potential to translate into commercial products — as well as a keynote address on the future of wireless health care by Dr. Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute.

The first morning session was comprised of two panels held simultaneously. “Green Expectations: Moving Toward Energy Independence” and “Biophotonics: Lighting Up Life.” Moderating the “Green Expectations” panel was Stephen Mayfield, director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology (SD-CAB) and a professor of biology at UCSD. Before introducing the panelists -— including Ralph Keeling of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Jan Kleissl of the UCSD department of mechanical and aerospace engineering — Mayfield provided an overview of world energy consumption and its impacts on food and fuel.

“The world took fossil fuels and turned it into food, and that’s what allowed us to get to a population of 7 billion people,” he said. “But with fossil fuels being depleted at an accelerated rate, the country that figures out the energy problem is the country that will dominate the economy. There are other parts of the world that are in for a very rude awakening.”

Keeling, who was the first to discover that oxygen concentration of the global atmosphere is decreasing due to the burning of fossil fuels, discussed the current understanding of the rise in greenhouse gas emissions and the role of government regulation.

Calit2 director Larry Smarr (at right) and Dr. Kevin Patrick, the professor of family and preventive medicine in the UC San Diego School of Medicine and director of Calit2's Center for Wireless and Population Health Systems

He said that although the carbon dioxide levels are expected to reach the symbolic level of 400 parts per million (ppm) in the next few years, measuring greenhouse gas emissions is difficult, in part, because the world lacks a unified system of global sensors.

“Carbon dioxide has reached 390 ppm today and we’re already seeing some profound climate changes” he remarked. “The question is, where are we going with this? The political landscape for regulating carbon dioxide has not gone forward much because of the difficulty in creating a regulatory structure for greenhouse gases when we don’t actually know what’s being emitted. There’s an increased future in understanding the science in this arena of regulation.”

Kleissl’s presentation demonstrated that there’s also an increased future in understanding the nuances of short-term solar forecasting. His team’s efforts at UCSD to generate total sky imagery to predict cloud motion vectors has shown 75 percent accuracy in the forecast of clouds within a 30-second range, and those numbers continue to improve.

The panel on biophotonics included Mark Ellisman, a UCSD professor of neurosciences and bioengineering who is director and principal investigator of the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, as well as Yuhwa Lo, who is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UCSD. In his presentation, Ellisman highlighted new microscopes and genetic marking methods for the Whole Brain Catalog, which generates 3D images of human brains and allows anyone on the web to explore, analyze and contribute to the understanding of the nervous system.

Lo, who directs the Nano3 Lab at the UCSD division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), discussed the benefits of using the human retina as a design model to enhance microchips so they are capable of recognizing the entire color spectrum. An increased sensitivity to color makes the microchip a more powerful tool for conducting biomedical diagnostics on a single cell level, noted Lo.

“Eventually the chip will be the size -— and hopefully the cost -— of a penny,” he added.

A second morning session of two simultaneous panels addressed “Regenerative Medicine: A Fresh Outlook for Neuro, Cardio and Cancer” and “Virtual Infrastructure: The Backbone of Environmental Advances.”

The “Regenerative Medicine” panel featured speakers from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies as well as Mark Mercola of the muscle development and regeneration program at UCSD. Larry Goldstein, UCSD professor of cellular and molecular medicine, moderated the panel and discussed the future of stem cell research in San Diego, which has received more than $264 million in grant funding for use in harnessing the power of stem cells to diagnose, treat and cure degenerative diseases and injuries.

Several UCSD faculty members presented the latest developments in virtual infrastructure at the panel chaired by UCSD Geophysics Professor John Orcutt, who is the principal investigator and director of the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), a collaboration of Calit2, SIO and several other institutions. Once fully established, OOI will create a blueprint for digital infrastructure that will allow ocean observatories to collect, process and transmit data 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Calit2’s Matt Arrott, program manager of OOI and a panelist at the summit, called the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded initiative a “new communication regime” and a “whole new way of thinking about networks.”

“We are living in a world where computation is going to live in the network, rather than on the edge” on individual servers, explained Arrott. “The dream of OOI is to create a ‘sense-and-response’ network that will allow for far more collaborative ways of working with data in real-time.”

In his talk on enabling technology for health, energy and cyberphysical systems, panelist Ingolf Krueger -— a Calit2-affiliated professor of computersScience and engineering -— predicted that with new developments in cloud computing “soon we will see our entire genomes traveling, via networks, from one medical provider to another.”

“These types of systems are germane not only to the sciences, but to society in general,” he noted.

Frank Vernon, research seismologist at the Scripps Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, presented a talk on the importance of real-time sensor data with accurate time. Vernon pointed out the difficulties of gathering data for large-scale, global studies like OOI, which must link physical observatory data, computation storage and network infrastructure in real-time for years on end.

“Think about the need to run a system at the same sample rate for a decade,” he added. “We need better real-time sensor data to be able to make predictions” about changes to the ocean environment.

Topol’s keynote speech, which preceded the final panel, addressed the super-convergence of innovative technologies such as social networks and handheld sensor devices. Topol said such technologies have the potential to render medicine as we know it obsolete.

“We now have the emerging tools to have the biggest shake-up in the history of medicine,” he remarked, adding that such tools can help humans evolve from the ‘homo distractus’ of the plugged-in modern age to the ‘homo digitus’ of an increasingly convergent digital and biological world. “Instead of having a ‘check engine’ light in a car, we’ll soon be able to do that in a human. We are creating the science of individuality.”

The final panel, which was moderated by Calit2 Director Larry Smarr, addressed the exponential “data deluge” caused by output from such digital health sensors, scientific instruments and parallel computers. By way of example, Smarr cited the Large Hadron Collider, which not only produces a massive amounts of data, but incorporates both private fiber optic cable links and existing high-speed portions of the Internet, enabling data transfer  to academic institutions around the world. Smarr and his colleagues at Calit2 are on the forefront of research to harness the power of optical networks to share similarly massive amounts of data at even faster speeds.

Added Smarr: “I think you’re going to see in La Jolla some of the first examples of people starting to tame these large amounts of data and using them just as you would the Internet.”

One such person is UCSD School of Medicine Chief of Genetics Trey Ideker, who, along with his colleagues at the Moores UCSD Cancer Center, is assembling large maps of the molecular networks underlying cancer to aid diagnostics and drug discovery. During his talk, Ideker predicted that the cost for sequencing an individual’s genome will soon equal the price of a simple blood test.

“This multiscalar, modular view of life will need to be captured and put into data systems,” he explained. “Just as a mechanic would look at a wiring diagram to determine how to fix your car, a physician could look at the wiring diagram for a cell to understand how to disable the DNA damage response in a tumor cell without damaging normal cells.”

Panelist Mike Norman, director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UCSD, said that the amount of digital data generated just by instruments such as DNA sequencers, cameras, telescopes, and MRIs is now doubling every 18 months.

“Digital data is advancing at least as fast, and probably faster, than Moore’s Law,” said Norman, referring to the computing hardware belief that the number of transistors which can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every 18 months. “But I/O (input/output) transfer rates are not keeping pace -— that is what SDSC’s supercomputers are designed to solve.”

SDSC, a key resource for UCSD researchers as well as the UC system and nationally, will later this year deploy a new data-intensive supercomputer system named Gordon, which will be the first high-performance supercomputer to use large amounts of flash-based SSD (solid state drive) memory. Flash memory is more common in smaller devices such as mobile phones and laptop computers, but unique for supercomputers, which generally use slower spinning disk technology.

The result of a five-year, $20 million grant from NSF, Gordon will have 250 trillion bytes of flash memory and 64 I/O nodes, and be capable of handling massive data bases while providing up to 100 times faster speeds when compared to hard drive disk systems for some queries.

The final presenter at the Research & Innovation Summit was Dr. Kevin Patrick, a professor of family and Preventative Medicine and director of the Calit2-based Center for Wireless and Population Health Systems. Patrick discussed the opportunities and challenges in measuring the “exposome,” or the measure of all the exposures of an individual in a lifetime and how those relate to disease onset and disease prevention.

Explained Patrick: “Unlike a person’s genome, the exposome changes over one’s lifetime. But there is a tremendous imbalance between what we know in genomics and what we know on the environmental exposure side.”

Patrick called for new research designs, new methods of data fusion and synthesis, a new generation of health data analysts and even new societal norms to take health care from a closed system of “doctor knows best” to an open system of collaboration.

“There’s no question -— this train has left the station,” said Patrick. “It’s like William Muholland said on the day water was brought to Los Angeles: ‘There it is. Take it.’”

But for venture capitalists like Thomas Gephart of Orange County-based Ventana, taking advantage of the innovative ideas presented at the research summit might be easier said than done.

“The system for financing private enterprise is broken everywhere down the line,” he said at the Summit. “It needs a total overhaul.”

According to Gephart, venture capital funding in the U.S. has decreased from $70 billion in 2000 to $12.3 billion in 2010.

“China, India, Singapore, Taiwan … those are all great success stories that have come from partnering relationships,” he said.  “But in the U.S., small investors have been forced out of business because of a separation between research and investment banking.

For real progress to be made in the arenas of cleantech, biotech, wireless and information technologies, Gephart said there must be “a better partnering relationship between private enterprise and government. It’s up to the Securities and Exchange Commission to improve that.”

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