A Light Goes Out: Some Reflections on the Passing of Duane Roth

Xconomy San Diego — 

I am saddened to report this morning that Connect CEO Duane Roth died Saturday at UC San Diego Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized since July 21 after sustaining a head injury while bicycling in the Cuyamaca Mountains east of San Diego. He was 63.

In my conversations with his brother, Ted Roth, it seemed that Duane’s condition was improving, and he would recover. I am stunned.

Duane Roth stepped in to lead Connect in the fall of 2004, at a time when the nonprofit organization was adrift and sinking. Connect was established under the auspices of the UC San Diego Extension with the idea of helping elite scientists make the connections they needed to start a company and commercialize their breakthrough discoveries and ideas.

Connect was in dire straits when Roth took over. The group that had gained renown in the 1990s as the accelerator for innovation in San Diego had lost key financial support from some of the biggest companies it had helped create. “I wish it weren’t so, but in a way we’re starting over again,” Mary Walshok, the UCSD associate vice chancellor who oversaw Connect, told me at the time.

In a testament to Roth—and a sign of the respect he engendered in the business community—he raised $250,000 in his first three months on the job. It was more than Connect had been able to raise in the previous year, and gave him the breathing room he needed to secure the group’s continuing financial support and lead a reorganization that moved Connect outside of UCSD’s organizational structure and influence.

Roth was a big thinker. When I sat down with him in early 2005 to talk about his turnaround plan, he sketched out his conceptual ideas on a whiteboard in blue ink—with big bubbles of organizational responsibility beneath an arc that he saw as Connect. What I extracted was that he wanted to restore what he called “the magic of Connect.”

I liked Roth because he respected my role as a journalist. He later told me that the story I wrote out of our interview had “helped,” even though he knew that was not my intent. He knew I could be critical as well, and he never expected my support.

When I joined Xconomy in late 2008, Roth quickly became one of our staunchest supporters. “Duane was not just a towering figure in San Diego,” Bob Buderi, Xconomy’s founder, CEO, and Editor in Chief, wrote in an e-mail this morning. “He was a champion of innovation everywhere and one of the best friends and partners Xconomy has ever had. I will miss him from the bottom of my heart.”

Roth immediately grasped the significance of what Xconomy was trying to accomplish, and how important our coverage of innovation would be to the startup community in San Diego. Remember that in the fall of 2008, we were all caught up in the fear and uncertainty of the financial crisis.

The meltdown on Wall Street shut down the capital flow for months, but it seemed especially severe in San Diego. Roth responded by working with the San Diego Venture Group to organize the La Jolla Research and Innovation Summit—and tapping genome pioneer J. Craig Venter and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs as speakers.

It was the kind of thing a true leader would do.

This only begins to explain why Connect cited John Steinbeck when it issued a statement yesterday on the passing of Duane Roth: “It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”

In its statement, Connect says it “has lost a champion and the community has lost a tireless advocate for big ideas—ideas that can truly enhance our region and our world. The moving tributes that are flooding the social media can only scratch the surface of how deeply we are saddened by the loss—too soon—of an incredible human being. Although ever alert to global issues of importance to San Diego and the entrepreneurial community he held so dear he was always there—making time in his superhuman schedule—to give guidance or help a friend in need.”

If you want to share your thoughts about Roth’s contributions to San Diego’s innovation community, they are welcome here. You can send them to me, or post them below.

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7 responses to “A Light Goes Out: Some Reflections on the Passing of Duane Roth”

  1. Lisa Haile says:

    It is still so very difficult to wrap your head around this tragedy and loss. Duane was a colleague, a client, a mentor, and a friend, to me for 20+ years and to so many others in San Diego. This loss is overwhelming, both personally and professionally. Hopefully we will all rally together and move forward in his memory, taking Duane’s insight and inspiration with us each day so that his light does not go dark in San Diego.

  2. Rick Ritter says:

    Duane’s reach was felt far beyond San Diego and California. I considered him a friend and a mentor. We have been a “follower” of Connect and Duane’s efforts from its earliest stages. His “big thinking” was an inspiration to all that came in contact with him. He will be missed.

  3. Bill Ghormley says:

    Duane Roth was a role model — we have lost a vital mind and wonderful leader in San Diego. He will be missed!

  4. Mark D. Leibowitz says:

    Thanks for your very thoughtful piece on Duane. I did not know him as well or for as long as you had. When I left Ligand at the end of 2006 I set out to gain exposure to and experience in the start-up world. As one mechanism to accomplish that end I started to volunteer in the Springboard program at Connect and to participate in Connect events. It was through that activity that I met and interacted with Duane.

    As you say, Duane transformed Connect and made it into a major force in the innovation economy of San Diego. His leadership and vision will be missed and I believe will be hard to replace; certainly hard to replace by a single individual.

  5. Abigail BarrowAbi Barrow says:

    Very sad news for CONNECT and for San Diego. Duane put his heart into supporting San Diego’s emerging biotech and high-tech companies by rebuilding and growing CONNECT. When Duane was at Alliance he worked closely with and supported Bill Otterson on many initiatives – including the founding of BioCom. So when he became CONNECT’s CEO after a very difficult time, he truly understood what needed to be done to re-establish the organization as well as having many ideas on growing new programs. Duane was a big thinker and a strong leader, he leaves a huge legacy in San Diego and around the world.

  6. Malin Burnham says:

    Duane Roth was, over the past
    many years, a great personal friend and colleague. He was one of San
    Diego’s most respected and influential leaders in the industrial,
    biotech, high-tech, medical research and education sectors. On many fronts, his
    amazing leadership helped significantly elevate San Diego to the national
    stage. He was chairman-elect of Sanford -Burnham Medical Research Institute and
    will be sorely missed by them and the other major institutes here. Roberta and
    I join all those whose saddened hearts go out to Duane’s wife and partner
    Renee, and to the Roth family.

  7. Marco Thompson says:

    Duane was the THE #1 PROPONENT of San Diego, promoting our region WORLDWIDE. Duane showed leadership in economic development, business creation, and philanthropy, and his ideas played on the local, regional, state, national, and international stage. NO ONE PERSON HAD AS MUCH IMPACT ON OUR REGION OVER THE LAST 2 DECADES. PERIOD – FULL STOP. I fully expected to soon address Duane as Governor or Senator Roth. His vision, leadership and organizing skills would have been great assets in continuing to be of service to the people of the region that he loved.
    Marco Thompson
    Express Ventures
    Solekai Systems