In the News

Roger Showley - San Diego’s innovation economy may hinge on something as mundane as fixing a traffic light in Sorrento Valley, or as complicated as overhauling the U.S. tax and immigration system.

That was the gist of a two-hour talk-a-thon Saturday organized by UC San Diego Extension and Connect, the group that helps companies turn research into products. Moderated by Steve Clemons, the Washington, D.C., editor-at-large for The Atlantic and National Journal magazines, the panel included Paul Jacobs, executive chairman of Qualcomm; Gregory Lucier, former chairman and CEO of Life Technologies and now chairman of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute; and Rep. Scott Peters, D-San Diego.

The invitation-only forum, “Innovation Crossroads: Creating a Policy Climate for Global Innovation in San Diego,” drew about 200 guests.

The panelists all sang San Diego’s praises as a place to start and grow a business, especially in the realm of life sciences and telecommunications.

Jacobs said his father, Qualcomm cofounder Irwin Jacobs, used to lure scientists by taking them to lunch at the beach and selling them on San Diego’s unparalleled climate — “and keep them away from real estate agents so they didn’t realize how much real estate costs.”

“The interesting thing is that still works today for San Diego,” he said, and housing prices aren’t as high as in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What doesn’t work in San Diego, he said, is traffic management — specifically, stop lights at the entrance to Interstate 805 to the west. He said many Qualcomm employees leave work early to avoid 45-minute on-ramp waits that should take only 30 seconds.

“We’re having a clear productivity loss,” Jacobs said, even after instituting flexible work hours for employees. He said semi-seriously that he’d ideally like his staff to follow his 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. work schedule.

If that bottleneck isn’t fixed, he said Qualcomm may have to stop expanding its campus and build elsewhere — not in another part of San Diego County, but in Austin, Texas, where some of his employees would like to relocate because of lower tax rates.

After the session, former San Diego Planning Director Bill Anderson, who is now an executive at the AECOM architectural and consulting company, told Jacobs that he would tackle that problem as part of his firm’s transportation planning contract with the San Diego Association of Governments. The two eagerly exchanged business cards.

The tax issue isn’t just about lower rates for employees, Jacobs said, but about corporate profits stuck overseas because of U.S. tax policy that penalizes companies when they try to bring that money back home. “That’s the dumbest thing in the range of dumb things that you come across,” Peters said, when dealing with policy choices in Congress.

Immigration policy also threatens continued innovation here, as well as nationally, the panel warned.

“The problem isn’t students coming to the U.S.,” Lucier said. “They’re not staying here once they get a degree because their home economies are very vibrant” and the U.S. visa system isn’t flexible enough to encourage them to stay.

However, Lucier said a new international opportunity lies in conducting medical trials across the border in Tijuana where regulatory delays are shorter than in the U.S., and monitoring from San Diego would be easy.

On agriculture, Lucier rejected health worries about genetically-modified foods. Virtually all U.S. crops have been modified somehow, and continued research could benefit the world by developing plants that need less water or sun, he said.

“That’s another area of innovation where we run the risk of losing the advantage,” he said.