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That's What SHE Said: Finding Solutions to a Broken Funding System

The rumors, events, people, and stories keeping the Mesa interesting


Mark Dilorio and Amanda Caniglia

Come sit by me...

Wow! Today I had the most fascinating “blind date” with Mark Dilorio, President & CEO of MagneSensors. Do I understand what he does, scientifically speaking? Um… sorry. But did we have the most fascinating two-hour discussion about the collaborative culture in San Diego? You bet. A great conversationalist, Mark shared several anecdotes from his start in SD, to his triumphs with grant funding, to volunteering in his son’s classroom for six years. We laughed, I cried, there were sparks of genius in our think tank. He did all the thinking while I got tanked. Kidding…

Originally from Boston, Mark came west and had the b’s to knock on the door of his future employer and ask for a job. To his surprise, it worked. He landed his first gig with Biomagnetic Technologies Inc., where he established and led the superconductor core technology group, eventually soaring to VP of Technology. In 1997, Mark spread his wings and started his own gig, MagneSensors, an innovative life sciences company focused on diagnostics. MagneSensors created a nanotechnology platform that utilizes patented ultra sensitive magnetic sensors and magnetic nanoparticles to enable earlier detection of cancer or infectious disease. The science is fascinating, but I am always more interested in the people behind the science. Back to Mark…

Like any small business owner, Mark has to juggle several roles in his company. At MagneSensors he serves as CEO, Chairman of the Board, CFO, HR department and secretary. Know the feeling buddy. That said, his experience as a scientist, business executive, and entrepreneur is invaluable to the future of existing and perhaps more importantly, new companies that are looking to get their big break here in SD. Mark is currently looking for an innovative new gig, either to help a company or to drive further economic development in the San Diego ecosystem.

One of Mark's hot button issues is the dysfunctional nature of today's government research funding system. Mark explains “the very low success rates combined with the tremendous time and effort needed for scientists to apply for NIH and most government research funding leads to a staggering amount of lost productivity from some of our top talent. The system today is extremely inefficient and in the last few years is becoming more like a lottery than an effective funding process.” This is coming from someone with a strong track record of obtaining government funding, having received over 25 grants and contracts over the past two decades.

New to the world of grant funding, I was surprised to learn how much time my customers were spending on these grant applications. When do they get to do the science? Mark stresses that it's very important not to point the finger solely to NIH funding. They seem to be the ones getting the bad rap in San Diego with its large life science community. As he put it, he has gone through the “ABCs” of grants, from NIH to NSF, NASA, DoD… It is truly the system as a whole that needs to be rebooted.

The success rate for NIH grant proposals is around 15%, just about half of the award rate from a decade ago. Moreover, a highly touted recent Department of Energy clean energy research program only funded 2% of the proposals submitted. While some of the losing scientists and program managers perhaps improved their writing skills a bit, this means that 98% of them pretty much wasted valuable time.

Many institutes, such as Salk and Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (say that fast three times), have turned to major private fundraising. TSRI now has a hybrid formula in place. It will be interesting to see what Mark and other thought-leaders come up with as solutions to this very concerning problem. In the meantime, we will take it to the streets of La Jolla—well, the Mesa—to reach out to the scientists and see what solutions they might have and can bring to the table. Perhaps we have another think tank, this time for scientists and industry people to gather and brainstorm solutions together? Ooooh, me likes this new idea.

Another challenge Mark wants to tackle is the need to attract more keystone leaders to San Diego. Mark spent the earlier part of his career in Boston and Silicon Valley, and is passionate that what truly sets us apart from the other big hubs is the collaboration that occurs throughout San Diego. A "former" physicist making an impact in the life sciences, Mark is a classic example of the cross discipline trend that defines our region. He is now ready to share his expertise and insight and give back to the community by finding solutions to a broken funding system. Mark believes that there is a better way to raise commercial capital to bring discoveries to the masses, and a brilliant idea to build a strong network of mentors is brewing in that brain of his.

* Anyone interested in helping with this survey and event? Hit me up on my FB page and we can start to brainstorm!


Food for thought...

It’s Friday night at the BellaV and Claudia jokes that, although she is a physicist at Salk, when she was young she’d tell people she was… get this… a taxi driver. “If I told them I was a physicist they would leave the table. If I said I was a taxi driver they stayed.” Who said scientists weren’t funny?

Little did she know, it wasn’t that she didn’t have a great sense of humor. It was more likely that the very people that were at the table were scared shitless they wouldn’t be able to keep up with the conversation. I am surrounded by talk of genetics, molecular blah blah blah. So how do we break the ice between two people who perhaps don’t speak the same language? What is that common denominator?

Food and wine. The conversation is much richer when you have several perspectives—the scientist, the dreamer, the entrepreneur, the artist, the activist, the post doc… Be part of our think tank. We invite you to come join our table.


Upcoming Events (I’ll be at the fun table…)

  • The UC San Diego Library and Helen Edison Lecture Series Present:
    Journalist Bob Woodward & Alex Butterfield, “The Last of the President’s Men”
    Don’t miss out on the story behind Deep Throat. Watergate people, not the film. Sheesh… Although for the record, it’s all about plot. So let’s talk scandal, the political kind. Award winning journalist and author Bob Woodward will take the stage with Alexander Butterfield, the star of his latest book The Last of the President’s Men. Butterfield was Nixon’s aide and, rumor has it, the one responsible for revealing the secret White House taping system. Historian Michael Bernstein will moderate the discussion. Their site says it is sold out, but there is hope. Promise. They will fill empty seats on a first come, first served basis. So come sit by me. We can listen to a bit of history surrounding the scandal straight from the horse’s mouth. Oh lord. Do me a favor. If you see me at the lecture… NO eye contact. Going to be so hard to keep a straight face. Reminds me of that scene from Beavis and Butthead in Sex Ed class
    December 4, 7-9 p.m., Price Center East Ballroom

  • 15th Anniversary Open House at QI
    Next Monday, the Qualcomm Institute will host an open house to celebrate their 15th anniversary. The celebration kicks off at 2 p.m. with a Research Open House, demos, performances and a reception. Former California Governor Gray Davis will speak at 4 p.m. They also have their monthly mixer tonight at QI. Haven’t met their fearless leader with a heart of gold, Ramesh Rao? Well, you should! And what better way than over a few drinks?
    December 7, 2 p.m., U.C. San Diego

  • The Future of Healthcare: An Evolution or Revolution?
    In their latest Inspiring Leaders series, JLabs brings us Noah Rosenberg, expert strategic advisor in healthcare today. Dr. Diego Miralles, who is pretty hot by the way (holy crap, did I just write that?), will interview Noah Rosenberg, Partner at Baker Hostetler. This fireside chat will focus on the current pressures that are forcing hospitals and healthcare systems to change. Financial rewards for preventative health? Home visits? It’s about time.
    December 9, 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., JLabs

  • WIB-Southern California Holiday Party
    Smart women, ocean view mansion, sunset, drinks, mistletoe… dudes, this is like shooting fish in a barrel. The Women in Bio Southern California chapter is hosting a holiday gathering to celebrate a year of great connections and speaking engagements. It is a great way to get full swing into the holiday season while showing your support for the amazing women on the Mesa. And who knows what fun you might get into after knockin’ back a few eggnogs.
    December 10, 4:00-8:00 p.m., La Jolla Coastal Mansion



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Life On the Mesa

Where innovation and discovery happens in San Diego

About This Blog

Did you know they are making tiny livers in Sorrento Mesa? They are! Real ones. This blog will tell that story, and many others like it. Whether you're a grad student slogging it out in a lab or a post-doc grappling with funding issue, a scientist waiting on a breakthrough or a banker looking for the next big thing, or even a parent, spouse, friend or curious observer of these people, this blog is for you. It's a place to celebrate and discover what's happening on The Mesa. The science, the business, the people. The discoveries, the stories, the impact. It feels like most of us in San Diego don't know enough, yet, about this stuff. We're here to work on changing that. We'd like there to be some discussion of science, technology and innovative-type things at every cocktail party on San Diego, and hopefully this blog can help provide the fodder. 

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