Prior to attending the Worthington Bio Conference on Thursday morning, I joked that I wasn’t sure I’d had enough coffee.
Sure, I expected the 11th annual event — which continues today at the Worthington Event Center — to feature plenty of speakers filled with all kinds of interesting anecdotes and positive messages. Still, as someone who often is in the position of being able to admit “I’m not the smartest person in the room,” I fretted about the likelihood of being lost in a sea of technical language and what I’d deem “biojargon.”
As it turned out, my tuning out was kept to a blissful minimum. The morning began with an engaging, occasionally quite humorous presentation by Jim DeKloe, director/founder of the Industrial Program at Solano College in the North San Francisco, Calif., Bay Area (not the type of resume-topper that typically implies comedy), which ended with a touching story about DeKloe and his son. Next, Sen. Amy Klobuchar kept up the momentum by offering optimistic remarks about Minnesota and its economic future, sprinkling in a few good one-liners about Washington all the while.
Klobuchar, who was in the second day of a two-day swing around southwest Minnesota, said she continues to serve Minnesotans in Washington because she believes federal lawmakers can still work together to get things done. She did admit to some low moments, and singled out one as the lowest — the “fiscal cliff” crisis.
“It was New Year’s Eve,” she remembered. “I looked to my left, and I saw Harry Reid. I looked to my right and saw Mitch McConnell. Every girl’s dream on New Year’s Eve.”
Still, Klobuchar remains hopeful, and noted Thursday that she helped coordinate the bipartisan “Group of 14” that ultimately helped steer lawmakers away from that fiscal cliff. She’s rightfully proud of that, along with her efforts on the farm bill (which she deemed “one of our only stable pieces of legislation … and one that is critical for our economy.”)
Her attitude as a senator, she said, is to “focus on how we govern from opportunity and move ahead.” One of the priorities Klobuchar listed was workforce development, and she noted that a study on Worthington’s housing needs indicated that 500 more housing units are needed by 2020 (“At the current pace of development, that would take 60 years”). She also spoke of getting more youths into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) studies, and immigration reform and tax reform were also at the top of her to-do list.
Klobuchar remarked that Minnesota ranks second in the U.S. in Fortune 500 companies and fourth in the nation for agriculture products, mentioning that strong and innovative operations such as Grazix Animal Health, Bioverse and Minnesota Soybean Processors sit in Worthington and its backyard. People migrate to Minnesota because innovation “is the bread and butter” of its economy, she said — and not for the weather, although Klobuchar pointed out that Minnesota “because of all its lakes, has more coastline than Florida, California and Hawaii combined.”
That was another one of Klobuchar’s laugh lines, but it wasn’t nearly as well received as her anecdote about a recent piece in The Washingtonian. In that article, she said, she and fellow U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah conservative, were named as “least likely to get into a scandal in Washington, D.C. … and I assume that means with each other.” There was more — she referred fleetingly to once being on a motorcycle with Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle and, paraphrasing “A Prairie Home Companion” host Garrison Keillor, called Minnesota the place where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the bioscience professionals are above average.”
DeKloe may be from California and not Minnesota, but as a bioscience professional it’s pretty safe to say he’s well above average. (I’ll opt not to comment about his looks.) He spent a good portion of his time discussing the rising of Vacaville, Calif., into a biotech center, and how what transpired in that community could happen elsewhere. With an eye on both the future and the past, he contrasted life on the southwest Minnesota prairie in 1900 to what it’s like today, noting that a multitude of scientific advancements can be hailed as a “transformation of what it means to be human.” Noted DeKloe: “You haven’t seen anything yet — this is the century of the biosciences.”
It promises to be a pretty remarkable century, indeed. He said continued advancements are expected in vaccines, antibiotics, nutrition, biomaterials (genetically engineered cells with multiple enzymes that are eventually converted into molecules), addressing aging (“it is likely that sometime in the next 100 years, we will likely be able to turn off aging,” he said while acknowledging ethical and moral consequences) and synthetic biology (“taking chemicals off the shelf, mixing them, and out of that experiment will come a living organism.”) DeKloe spoke of a project he said he funded through a Kickstarter campaign in which genes are being put into a plant in order to fulfill a dream of having a boulevard with glowing plants. “They’re going to send me some seeds once it’s done,” he said. “They’re doing it in the garage … anyone can do it now, and that’s the way of the future.”
Perhaps DeKloe’s primary point was that biotechnology represents the intersection of science, engineering, business and government, and that “all of these agents have to come together to have a viable bioscience industry.” But he also did a dead-on impression of former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at a bioscience-related groundbreaking, admitted that he did his “patriotic duty” and watched the Seth Rogen film “The Interview,” and made references to the classic book “Brave New World” (“it may come true) and not-nearly-as-classic film “Gattaca” (“It’s implications are staggering … and Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman met on the set and had a few genetic experiments of their own.”) In short, his other main point could have been that a little humor can give a speech a big boost.
DeKloe’s finest moment of his presentation came at its conclusion, when he discussed his then-4-year-old son contracting a sudden and life-threatening illness and being told of a possible solution — a drug that he, ironically, had developed with the biotech firm Genentech. His son is now a sophomore studying bioengineering.
“If you want an advocate for this field, you have no bigger advocate than me,” DeKloe said. With that kind of personal story, it was only fitting that he set the tone for what promised Thursday morning to be a very enlightening conference.