USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

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By Trista Morrison

BioWorld Today Staff Writer

Editor’s note: Biotech Foundations is a new BioWorld Today column that recognizes biotech-related nonprofit organizations, as well as those founded by biotech industry luminaries. Tell us about your nonprofit at newsdesk@bioworld.com.

Former biotech venture capitalist and entrepreneur Larry Bock knows how to turn an idea into reality. He’s had a hand in founding dozens of companies, including Athena Neurosciences Inc. (bought by Elan Corp. plc.), Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., Ariad Pharmaceuticals Inc., Onyx Pharmaceuticals Inc., Illumina Inc. and many others.

Now Bock is applying biotech skills – like fundraising and running virtual operations on a shoestring budget – to the nonprofit world. His USA Science & Engineering Festival, an annual celebration aimed at getting Americans excited about science, kicks off this week.

“Society gets what it celebrates,” Bock explained. “We celebrate Brittney Spears, and we get a lot of Britney Spears wannabes.” But as Bock was founding biotechs, he became concerned that it was nearly impossible to fill scientist job openings without going overseas. Americans just didn’t seem to “get” science.

It’s a problem that has attracted plenty of media attention of late. Last month, the National Academy of Sciences reported that China has replaced the U.S. as the world’s top high-tech exporter and is second in biomedical research. And this year’s crop of Nobel Prize-winning scientists included three researchers working in Britain, one in Japan and two in the U.S. – one of whom is a Japanese citizen and the other of whom has retired to the Philippines. (See BioWorld Today, Sept. 27, 2010, and Oct. 7, 2010.)

Bock wanted to find a way to get Americans excited about science again, and a family vacation in Europe provided the inspiration: science festivals. So last year, Bock launched his own science festival in his hometown of San Diego. The month-long event attracted about 250,000 people, and the grand finale day brought in 100,000. Afterward, one of the scientists staffing a booth told Bock, “For the first time, you made me look cool in front of my kids.”

That was the “ah-ha” moment, according to Bock. He realized his idea had promise, and this year he expanded it nationally, with events in 50 cities leading up to a grand finale Oct. 23-24 on the National Mall in Washington.

The first two weeks of the festival focus on community events: sending scientists to speak in schools, hosting teachers’ workshops and presenting evening lectures on topics like evolution and global warming. But the big excitement is the grand finale: 1,500 booths where the public can solve a CSI-style crime using DNA analysis, learn about the chemistry of Thanksgiving dinner, or play a 3-D game that goes inside the immune system. There are role models (professional cheerleaders turned scientists), edibles (DNA from Twizzlers and marshmallows), hands-on experiences (build molecules from LEGOs) and plenty to satisfy the inner geek (the physics of superheroes) – as well as 75 performances, including an appearance by National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins’ rock band.

The festival is backed by engineering firms such as Lockheed Martin as well as biotechs like Life Technologies Corp., Johnson and Johnson, Amgen Inc., Celgene Corp., Illumina Inc., Agilent Technologies Inc. and others. Bock said many biotechs got their technology from universities and understand the importance of reinvigorating the system with fresh young minds.

And for his part, Bock said many of the lessons he learned from biotech have transferred well to the nonprofit world. “I could at least go up to an investor and promise they’ll get a lot more out of it than they put in,” he said.

Bock runs the USA Science & Engineering Festival like a biotech start-up: He has a business plan, and he provides regular updates on that plan to his sponsors. He also maintains virtual operations – his group has no offices and no infrastructure, and it outsources functions like logistics and public relations.

One major difference between running a nonprofit and running a biotech is employee motivation. In biotech, “I could always incentivize people with equity,” Bock said. While there are no stock options for the science festival, Bock still believes in paying competitive salaries to get the best people on board, reasoning that one really good employee is more effective than 10 people sharing a job for partial salaries. But Bock admits he is “amazed how incentivized people are just by doing good.”

For more information, go to: www.usasciencefestival.org