Greg Horowitt: Fostering Innovation at UCSD

Greg Horowitts discusses the role of innovation in education at UCSD.

To start us off, can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be involved with UCSD?

I’m a serial entrepreneur. Coming out of college, I worked in a few traditional bricks-and-mortar businesses until I made the move to Silicon Valley in the late 90s to work on my first startup. After I exited that startup, we went into venture capital, so I became an entrepreneur-in-residence for a local venture capital fund. I got bit by the VC bug. Essentially, they gave me a checkbook and a hunting license, and I looked for deals.

After a successful exit from one of the companies we had invested in, I took a little time off. I came back to San Diego, where I’m from, and began mentoring and working with startups at a local business incubator. It was as part of a program called CONNECT, which linked the entrepreneurs to mentors and other resources for growing their companies. When the executive director of the program exited, the board asked me to step in as the interim director.

I like to think we took that organization to the next level. During that time, we started a subset of CONNECT called Global CONNECT. That involved working with different regions around the world that were looking to either learn about the CONNECT model or trying to build their own innovation ecosystems. I was an advisory and consultancy within the university to do that.

That gave us a lot of insights into not only the way innovation came about within the San Diego context, but also how other regions were approaching innovation. It also allowed us to see what elements might be prescriptive for innovation, but also more importantly, what elements were incredibly regional and specific to that particular place and the people there.That gave us a unique perspective, which then allowed us to do more advisory work that was targeted towards the specific needs of a region, rather than just replicating Silicon Valley.

That all led to the book The Rainforest Book  that I co-authored. My business partner and I also started a venture fund to invest in some of the companies we were helping around the world.

At what point did UCSD start to tie into your story?

The first part—the advisory program—was done from within the inside of UCSD. I had left for a few years to focus on investments. When the new Chancellor came back into UCSD, he and the Vice-Chancellor for Research asked me to do some workshops around innovation and culture, which we did.

That led to them asking me to be more involved with some of the innovation programs at the university and the creation of the Office of Innovation and Commercialization. When the new Associate Vice-Chancellor for Innovation was brought in, he asked if I would stay on and help them implement some of the programs we had designed.

My current role at the university as the Director of Innovation Design means I spend my time designing new frameworks, methodologies, programs, and ways of engagement. On top of that, I look at ways to integrate multiple parts of campus into the conversations around innovation. I also try to stimulate more activities—including more startups—to come out of the university.

Instead of just bringing in professors who study innovation, we’re now bringing in the actual entrepreneurs and operators who build these companies to tell us about their experiences.

Having jumped into a role of education in the field of innovation, how would you say education in this field has changed in recent years?

It’s certainly shifted from the more theoretical and observational nature of innovation to a more practical, hands-on, practitioner-focused, immersive approach.

Instead of just bringing in professors who study innovation, we’re now bringing in the actual entrepreneurs and operators who build these companies to tell us about their experiences. The method of learning has shifted to being transmitted through a first-hand narrative of what works and what doesn’t, illustrated by anecdotes based on real experiences. So that’s one way the education landscape has changed regarding innovation.

The other is that entrepreneurs tend to like to learn “just in time.” Some folks are very comfortable doing Business Planning 101, then Venture Capital 102. But there’s another group that wants to be able to access information and resources on the fly, when they need it, and based on their specific context.

So, we’ve been more responsive to that by creating traditional classes that allow people to stay on a more focused journey of learning, while providing the option to jump in, jump out, and engage at will. Think of it like on-ramps and off-ramps on the freeway. People are able to come and engage at different parts along the journey.

We’ve designed our educational and informational programs in such a way that each piece can stand on its own. So, if someone only “gets on the ramp” or comes into a class to learn one aspect—let’s say about term sheets or building teams—they would learn enough of that complete aspect to stand alone. Of course, when we teach it in sequence, we can see how all the pieces tie together.

Nowadays, any aspiring professional is pretty much required to have a college degree. How does that pressure to earn a diploma affect innovation culture?

In a couple of ways. Degrees are wonderful for creating experts, particularly where they need enough knowledge to be relevant to the market. But there’s also are-emphasis in communities in general for vocational training—people learning very, very specific skills.

We also assume that students will have a lifelong relationship with educational institutions. We hope that in the future, students—in the broadest sense of the term—will go back and forth between the market and the educational institutions and continue to gather new knowledge and skills in their chosen industry, based on the current demands and what’s happening in the market at that time. It can be in the form of skilling, re-skilling, or up-skilling. It may be through refresher courses to brush up on existing knowledge, but it may also be done as a way to remain relevant and up-to-date in the case when new tools or paradigms are introduced.

Let’s say you graduated from college with a degree in marketing, over 20 years ago. All of a sudden, these concepts of social media and social communication come into being. The skills that you currently have—based on a marketing degree that was considered relevant or even “cutting edge” 20 years ago—aren’t equipped to handle this new narrative, this new paradigm. So, you’ll often turn to an educational institution to gather new knowledge, whether that’s inside of a university or a specific program. So, people will gather an education almost like merit badges or certificates, not just merely degrees.

How would you say UCSD’s Innovation department is itself being innovative?

For one, by listening to students. We ask them about their learning preferences. We ask them how they would think of designing the curriculum.

One of the things we found out is that while knowledge can be generated by experts, trust is built through peer interactions. So, the best educational experiences have a combination of people learning and working with their peers while also interacting with experts. We’re bringing in far more simulation, emulation, an dimension as part of the educational experience, and not just merely the traditional classroom kind of lectures and labs that are most commonly associated with a university setting.

We’re also innovating by bringing more of the community into the classroom, and more of the classroom into the community. We see San Diego itself as a living laboratory, so we focus on taking the students into the market, rather than just sitting in a classroom and learning through a lens.

The best educational experiences have a combination of people learning and working with their peers while also interacting with experts.

Would one example of that be the IGNITE event that you guys just hosted?

That’s exactly it. Not only are students learning from the people who are standing at the fore, but another part of what we’re trying to do is engineer serendipity—collisions of people that allow them to interact, find out what they do, what brings them here. Your empathy and your humanity begin connecting to others who may have come for different reasons than you do. And that’s more reflective of the way society works.

Can you give us a few examples of some fresh new tools or methodologies that people are using for innovation right now?

Well, like I said, it’s all about simulation, emulation, and immersion. Virtual and other mixed reality tools, for example, take people into alternative or parallel experiences and allow them to interact within those spaces. In turn, that allows for them to experience authentic emotions. Human beings don’t just desire human connection, they also mirror the positive behaviors of others through what’s called biomimicry. VR gives people a chance to actually experience that in nontraditional settings.

The way we do incubators and accelerators has also changed. In a business school, for example, you’d typically put a group of MBA students together and have them solve a problem or work on a project together. We’re trying to transfer adopt these kinds of tools into an incubator setting, so now, when we bring people in, we put them into diverse teams or cohorts.

BlueLINC  is an example of one of those programs. It matches up students in the medical school with complementary students in business, engineering, and design to form a cohort. Then they go into the market and look for problems they can solve together. This way, they learn through being and working with people who are quite different from them.

Are design sprints—or other sprints in general—being taught at a university level right now? We’ve just recently adopted them ourselves.

They are, and in a lot of different ways. World-building, for example, is a type of design sprint that was originally used in movie production. You get people together through an experience and you think about how you may design a world or a setting. It’s what they did in Black Panther with Wakanda, or in Star Wars with worlds like Tatooine. In the same way, we can reimagine what San Diego would look like in 2049. So we end up using science fiction and speculative design to teach people about how to design for the future.

Of course, you have the more traditional hack-a-thons, but those haven’t been quite as sticky. That’s because people get together for this amazing experience and they begin bonding, but then the clock runs out on their time in the design sprint and they run into a problem: how do we carry this forward? One of the biggest challenges in hack-a-thons is carrying that momentum, energy, and initial intention forward without it all dropping off as soon as the event is over.

That’s one way to be a true problem solver—not by falling in love with a solution, but by falling in love with the problem.

I really like the term ‘cognitive athletes.’ How do you train cognitive athletes, and what’s the best way to change somebody from being a problem creator to be a problem solver?

The single-word answer? Empathy.

Design thinking is so much about teaching empathy. It’s not about taking your pre-existing vision of the world and trying to place it on others. Instead, it’s about stepping back—before you even do anything—and trying to inhabit the souls of the people you think you could change for the positive.

You immerse yourself in their experience, and you try to gain a complete understanding of their perspective. That’s one way to be a true problem solver—not by falling in love with a solution, but by falling in love with the problem. You cultivate a deep interest in those who actually struggle with that problem, and you examine the different ways they experience it.

You can train a cognitive athlete through the equivalent of certain types of psycho therapy training, biomimicry, or through simple things like debate. I think debate has become a lost start. All you need to do is take at least one person on your team, have them take on an opposite viewpoint to the consensus viewpoint of what you’re doing, and have them defend that viewpoint as if it was their own. It brings up issues that you otherwise may have forgotten about, or that you may have been unknowingly blinded to.

Another way to train cognitive athletes is through improvisation. We use a lot of improv work, which, when people do it—particularly if they’ve never done it before—can initially feel very uncomfortable. But as you do more and more of it, the brain begins getting rewired to these new realities of ambiguity ,uncertainty, volatility, and complexity—which basically describes what goes on in a start-up.

We put our students through what we internally call “Special Forces training.” It’s similar to what Navy SEALs would put their recruits through, where they get to cognitively train for what it’s like to be pushed into ambiguous circumstances and do problem-solving on the fly. As you can imagine, it’s initially very uncomfortable, but the more you do it, the more your pattern recognition kicks in, and then it doesn’t overwhelm the brain as much. Then you can use the novelty receptors of your brain to process the unique aspects of the problem you’re trying to solve.

It’s clear that strong innovation and problem-solving require a good amount of creativity. How do you teach a team to stay creative?

By allowing them to play.

I think the most important work—when you talk about creative and innovative—is the play. As children, we see the world through a child’s eyes: everything looks like a possibility rather than a problem to be solved. While everyone sees the same things, what’s different about high creatives—and particularly high entrepreneurial creatives—is that they see opportunity where most people only see problems. So, it’s not about what you’re looking at, so much as the perspective you have on it. And we can actually teach and train that perspective.

We liken our work at UCSD to playing in a sandbox, because we want to get back to this concept of playfulness and creativity. There’s a lack of preciousness in ideas when they’re early on. As we say, “all innovation babies are born ugly.” But I really believe the future is about creation, as opposed to looking at what’s already happened. So, it’s not about looking at KPIs and metrics and outcomes.

It’s about asking: What is the journey? What will that journey yield? And, once we generate knowledge and insight, how do we share it with the greatest number of people, so they can also benefit? That’s the real crux of what we’re talking about.

While everyone sees the same things, what’s different about high creatives—and particularly high entrepreneurial creatives—is that they see opportunity where most people only see problems.

I’d like to leave off with a question we try to ask all of our contributors, and it’s a bit more personal. What’s a work or life hack you use to stay motivated or successful?

I allocate at least a quarter of my day to reading. A big part of that reading is not just the business blogs and what people are talking about right now—but reading science fiction. To think about what could be as opposed to merely just what is—I’d say that’s one of my hacks. Reading science fiction appeals to that.

I will send you over an article that one of my colleagues wrote. He was somebody who worked for us and now he’s become a well-known writer. He wrote a recent piece, one for theHarvard Business Review and one for TechCrunch, on why start-up entrepreneurs need to read more science fiction, and I think you’ll get a lot of insights (

Greg Horowitt is the co-founder and Managing Director of T2 Venture Capital.  He is also the co-author of the best selling book, ‘ The Rainforest: the Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley.  He is also one of the co-founders of the Global Innovation Summit, co-founder of the Rainforest Architects Program, and a co-developer of the Rainforest Index. He is an adviser, speaker, and consultant to organizations like the World Bank, US State Department, OECD, USAID, Aspen Institute, and the National Academies of Science. Greg is also the co-founder of Global CONNECT.

Keep up with Greg on LinkedIn.

Illustration by  Karol Lewalski.