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Close-up: Larry Bock

Meet Larry Bock: The local man behind a national movement

Larry Bock

“I fundamentally believe you get what you celebrate,” said Larry Bock, Encinitas-based entrepreneur and venture capitalist-turned founder of the USA Science and Engineering Festival. “We celebrate Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears and we generate a lot of wannabes, but we don’t celebrate science and engineering. So my goal was to put on the largest celebration of science and engineering.”

And he did. Now in its third year as a national event and fourth year overall, the USA Science and Engineering Festival is the largest such celebration of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in the country. The event will draw hundreds of thousands to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the nation’s capitol in April for hands-on experiences spanning the whole STEM spectrum, from building structures with marshmallows to operating surgical robots.

Bock said the festival is actually a year-long event that culminates with this massive gathering, the 2012 edition of which was the second-largest event in the Washington Convention Center’s history, taking over half of the building.

There are already about 1,000 organizations participating in the 2014 festival, up from 650 at the last one. Of those, about 350 are professional societies and trade organizations, 200 are universities and colleges, about 100 are high-tech and life science companies, 75 are government agencies or labs, and the remainder are community organizations or STEM outreach groups.

This year, the STEM celebration booked the entire Convention Center, but space is still at a premium.

“As of this morning, we have sold out every last square inch of space,” Bock said Jan. 31. “We’re actually at a point where we’re kind of hoping some people drop out because we’ve overcommitted.”

Since the festival primarily makes use of the exhibit halls, and Bock is always looking to expand the audience to truly make this what he calls the “Super Bowl of STEM,” the organizers invited some major STEM professionals to hold conferences during the event, and booked two dozen such conferences to the space that weekend.

So what, exactly, will happen at the festival? It begins on a Thursday night with a new component called X-STEM, an extreme STEM TED-style conference for children. Fifty speakers including John Holdren, Obama’s chief science adviser; Anousheh Ansari, the first female private space flight astronaut; and Craig Venter, who mapped the human genome, will give talks on their expertise and experiences.

Friday is a “sneak peek” day for students from underserved schools to check out the exhibits and get their hands dirty. Bock said that in 2012, 14,000 students signed up but 28,000 attended, so he’s planning to host double the 35,000 students currently registered.

On Friday evening, the exhibitors and sponsors invite VIPs to also get a glimpse of the goods ahead of the public.

The festival is open to the public Saturday and Sunday, April 26 and 27, and Bock said it always draws a wide demographic, with exhibits, workshops and stage shows suitable for toddlers all the way through grandparents. The 100 shows aren’t solely science-focused, with acts including performances by They Might Be Giants, and presentations by Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Miss California Krystal Lee and Mike Rowe from “Dirty Jobs.”

And what kind of STEM event would it be without Bill Nye the Science Guy?

The festival is a nonprofit event and 100 percent sponsor-supported. Bock said the first such celebration, which was in San Diego in 2010, raised $650,000 in sponsorships, with the first national festival pulling in $2.1 million and the 2012 edition raising about $3.5 million to cover the cost of the space and all related expenses.

Bock said the 2014 festival will close in on about $5 million, making it the first year that produces a surplus, all of which will go toward the next festival.

One of those key sponsors from the beginning has been Lockheed Martin, which co-founded the first festival in San Diego and has been on board since. Ray Johnson, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Lockheed Martin, said the company will have a 56,000-square-foot exhibit this year, featuring stage presentations, interactive exhibits and new technologies from the country’s most forward-thinking scientists, engineers, businesses, inventors and celebrities.

“Our nation is having a robust debate over the prospects for maintaining our competitive edge in an increasingly global economy,” Johnson said. “Innovation, technology, and engineering continue to be essential to America’s economic development, and they will only become more important to our global competitiveness in the years ahead. As the chief technology officer of a corporation that depends on 60,000 engineers, scientists, and technologists to deliver innovative solutions, I concern myself with these issues every day.”

Bock, who now works on the festival full time and receives no compensation, said he realized the need for such an event when he came face to face with the dismal state of American STEM education.

“The reason I do it is I spent most of my career as a high-tech entrepreneur, and I could not recruit Americans to these advanced science positions anymore -- not because I didn’t want to, but because they just weren’t going into those fields,” he said.

Bock has founded, co-founded or seeded about 30 companies from inception through an aggregate market cap of $60 billion, predominantly life science companies and many in San Diego, including Illumina, Neurocrine Biosciences and Idun Pharmaceuticals.

After formally concluding his career, he and his family moved to Europe for a year, where he said he went to several science expos such as the one he now leads, and saw a space for such a celebration of all things science in the United States.

While the USA Science and Engineering Festival is a good first step toward Bock’s goal of “getting what you celebrate,” he’s under no illusions about what is necessary to really solve the problem.

“The problem is that even if I’m incredibly successful at what I’m doing in getting kids into STEM, we’re going to miss an entire generation,” he said. “I think the statistic is right now 85 percent of the people taking advanced degrees in the physical sciences in the United States are from abroad. And I think it’s Bill Gates who said we ought to give them a Ph.D. and a green card at the same time and keep them here.”

Schools should also try and put the fun and curiosity back in math and science classes, Bock added.

“Fundamentally, I think that the schools drum the interest of science out of kids,” he said. “They learn a ton of facts and figures but then at the end of the day, they have no idea why that science is important in real life. I like to think they’re sitting there learning the photosynthetic pathway and every step in it, and they can regurgitate that for an AP exam extremely well, but they don’t realize that some company up on the hill figured out how to manipulate that pathway and get algae to create jet fuel. And I think if they understood those types of things, there’d be a lot more kids going into science and engineering than there are now.”

Not all hope is lost, however, as Bock acknowledges that there are great pockets of innovation and entrepreneurship within our borders, including right here in San Diego.

“I think it’s got all the right elements except for the funding,” he said. “I mean there’s more of it up in the Bay Area obviously, but it’s got all the right elements to have a cluster.”

He put one asterisk on that “all the right elements” claim, suggesting the University of California, San Diego polish its tech transfer process, something the school has said they’re working on.

“The problem is that MIT and Stanford take the attitude that they don’t know which one of these inventions is going to be a success, so they’re more transaction oriented. … You go to UCSD, and it takes you six months to license something.”

Suggestions and critiques aside, it’s clear that Bock believes in the goals of the festival and wants others to be as fired-up about STEM as he is.

“Lockheed Martin could not have had a more committed partner than Larry to develop the festival into the national stage it is today,” Johnson said. “He is a brilliant entrepreneur who has a passion for advancing STEM education in our country. The way he applies his business achievements and expertise to bring together academia, industry, and government to celebrate STEM is an inspiration to us all.”

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