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Innovation Summit Highlights Drug Development, Cleantech, and Potential Impact of Drought

Xconomy San Diego — 

The La Jolla Research & Innovation Summit held yesterday at the Salk Institute was a smaller and a much more modest affair than the inaugural summit that Connect CEO Duane Roth organized last year. I have some impressions from the morning presentations:

—Climatologist Dan Cayan of UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography explained why multiple computerized models of climate change indicate that Southern California will become significantly hotter and drier over the next 100 years. What Cayan left unsaid is the critical importance of water to the life sciences community in semi-arid San Diego, which gets just 10 inches of rainfall a year (on average) and imports most of its water from Northern California and the Colorado River basin. Biocom, the San Diego regional biotech industry association, began during the drought of 1991, when the San Diego City Council proposed a water-rationing plan that included shutting off water for several hours a day to manufacturers—including life sciences facilities.

—When someone in the audience asked about current prospects for desalination technology, Australian-born Tony Haymet, who is director of Scripps Oceanography, stepped to the microphone to explain that desalination remains very expensive. If I understood him correctly, Haymet said desalination is more than four times the cost of conventional water treatment. In Australia, where much of the population lives in a coastal climate similar to San Diego, Haymet said a prolonged dry spell led to a concerted effort to reduce excessive water use. The results are dramatic. Haymet said urban Australia has reduced its daily water consumption by 77 percent, from 130 gallons per person to 30 gallons per person. In contrast, the Scripps director says average daily water use in California today exceeds 300 gallons per person. So there’s room for improvement. Haymet noted, however, that Australia calculates its urban water use separately from agricultural use, but California includes both agricultural and urban water use in calculating 300 gallons per capita. So it would be useful to distinguish how much water goes to California’s cities and how much goes to the “Cadillac Desert.”

—William Gerwick, a professor for marine biology and biomedicine at Scripps Oceanography, says about 28 percent of the 1,184 FDA-approved drugs in the market today were developed from natural compounds that exist in nature. Gerwick described how his group identifies promising pharmaceutical compounds from marine algae collected throughout the world. In work with the Moores UC San Diego Cancer Center, Moores said researchers found a promising anti-cancer compound—somocystinamide A—in a particular marine organism.

—UC San Diego’s Joseph Ford, an electrical engineering and computer science professor who now heads UCSD’s photonics systems integration lab, says crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells remain the preferred technology for rooftop solar installations. Solar systems that focus light rays, which are known as concentrating photovoltaics, can be up to twice as efficient at converting sunlight into electricity—but such systems must be large and require mechanisms that track the sun through the day. Ford says his group has developed technology to make concentrating lens arrays within a flat solar panel that is less than 3/8th of an inch thick. Ford says the technology has been patented, but has not yet been commercialized.