What if San Antonio gets REALLY ambitious in 2022?

The first quarter of this year, much of the talk in sports bars and nightly local news shows was devoted to speculation about the Oakland Raiders and hopes that they could be brought to San Antonio.  I kept hearing that it would cost the city $1B to bring them here.  It seems that the number wasn’t too far off, because the owner of the Raiders has committed to bring his team to Las Vegas in exchange for $750M in tax revenue.

While this talk was getting thrown around, my dad made an interesting comment to me that I’ve heard him echo to others.  He said that for the price of bringing the Raiders to San Antonio, we could instead endow the sports programs of all of our local Universities and enjoy multiple world-class collegiate athletic programs.  I thought this was a cool idea, and I shared it with some friends, but the underlying importance of that statement was lost on me at the time. A vein that runs between both ideas points to larger truths.  First, a community can choose to make enormous investments in itself.  Second, you don’t need to build an NFL stadium to invest a billion dollars.  It turns out there are a whole lot of ways you can spend a billion dollars.

A lot more talk has centered around the rate of growth in our city.  It is expected that our city will grow by more than 1 Million residents by 2030.  There has been optimistic conversation centered on how we are going to handle this growth and develop our city.  Politicians have been talking about needing to preempt traffic congestion, build sidewalks, develop parks, develop energy sources, and protect our water resources.  We have been tagging these kinds of initiatives with #Cityontherise or #Cityofthefuture, etc. 

To me, these seem like low hanging fruit.  Of course, we need to be able to move about our city.  Of course, every neighborhood should have sidewalks. Of course, we want to have more parks.  Of course, we need to be able to power our city. Of course, we need clean drinking water.  While I applaud city leaders who are taking necessary steps to secure the future of our city (I am actually very happy with most of our city leadership), these ideas are not transformative.

In an article from May 2016 (http://therivardreport.com/a-bond-and-a-vision-for-san-antonio/), Bob Rivard points out that the conversation about the bond starts with how much debt the city can carry.  He asks for a conversation about the pros and cons of settling for a conservative $750M bond vs. reaching higher and making it an aggressive $1B.  While I respect the sentiment, I disagree that $1B is really so aggressive.

In November of 2015, I co-founded San Antonio Science, Inc. in order to advocate for and promote Science in San Antonio.  The impetus for this, was that most of my neighbors here in San Antonio do not appreciate the major scientific strengths of our city, and I feared that, if we don’t recognize science as a strength, we won’t build on that strength as we build toward our future.  I point out that San Antonio has some phenomenal science resources and a history of successes. 

We are perhaps the world leader in cybersecurity.  We are the home to Rackspace.  We played a major role in the invention of the personal computer and the microchip at Datapoint.  We are home to multiple public and private universities.  1 in 6 (164,537 jobs in 2013) jobs in our city are related to healthcare and biosciences.  The intravascular stent and the titanium rib we both developed here.  The Cancer Therapy and Research Center (CTRC) is one of only 69 National Cancer Institute – designated cancer centers. And in the last 20 years, a San Antonian has won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry twice (Floyd Curl Jr. & W.E. Moerner)!  

Clearly, we have significant strengths in the sciences that we can build on.  Still, we are forgotten about in these fields, because we are eclipsed by other cities.  In IT, we live in the shadow of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, and our neighbor to the north, Austin.  In biotech, we are eclipsed by Boston, the research triangle, San Diego, and New York.  Even in healthcare, one of our greatest economic strengths, we are a footnote relative to Houston, just 200 miles to our East.  Clearly, we still have room for growth.

What if in the 2022 bond, the city of San Antonio got really ambitious?  What if we decided to invest $1B in a transformative project for our community?  What if we invested $1B in local science?

With a $1B dollar investment, San Antonio could endow a San Antonio Science Foundation; an entity that could distribute $50M dollars annually to R&D efforts in the STEM field happening in San Antonio.  This money, available only for work being done in San Antonio, would be a draw to the best scientific minds from universities, and STEM industry all over the world to relocate to San Antonio.

Start-ups hoping to compete for grant funding to develop new products would flock here to compete for that money.  We could even allow companies from outside San Antonio to compete for grants contingent on them relocating to San Antonio if the grant is awarded.  This could be a way to recruit the most promising small STEM businesses from around the world to settle in San Antonio. 

Even large companies would be drawn to relocate here or build new campuses in San Antonio.  Instead of offering huge tax incentives for companies to locate here, we could allow them to compete annually for grants on a competitive basis that would be spent doing exciting projects in the Alamo City.  We would be incentivizing innovation and bringing some of the best minds working in the most cutting edge industries to San Antonio. 

Moreover, our investing $50M annually could result in much larger annual returns.  The same way infrastructure investment in the city can benefit all the businesses in our city and bring tourism, etc., We could designate a portion of the annual budget to STEM infrastructure investments that could benefit the entire local science community.  You can imagine a scenario where the Health Science Center is given a grant to build a world class microscopy facility.  The scientists in our city could then use new approaches that they couldn’t before.  This makes them more productive scientists, makes them more likely to achieve scientific breakthroughs that may lead to new companies, and it makes them more likely to earn federal grants.

Additionally, federal entities giving research grants (primarily the NSF and the NIH) like to give grants to individuals with a history of receiving grants.  It shows a pattern of success.  We could take advantage of this by funding our local scientists and spurring a self-reinforcing cycle of continued funding by federal entities.  In these ways, San Antonio could effectively receive matching funds from the federal government and private industry in many cases.

In 2015, the NIH and NSF together gave San Antonio institutions roughly $110M on about 300 individual grants.  If this community was suddenly infused with an additional 45%, it could be transformative for one of the city’s largest industry, and our industry with the most potential for growth.  By creating a sudden and LASTING investment in our STEM community, we can build on the strong foundation we have to be GLOBAL leaders in multiple STEM fields.

Let’s make San Antonio the health care power of Texas and the world.  Let’s draw companies and investments from Boston and San Diego and San Francisco to the Country’s and the World’s new biotech hub.  Let the most talented computer engineers migrate from Silicon Valley to the Silicon River Walk. Let’s catapult UTSA, and every other University in the city to Tier 1 status.  If San Antonio truly wants to be a #Cityontherise, we should outcompete the rest of the world by investing in ourselves, by investing in our strengths, and investing in the jobs of the future.  Instead of being content with doing what everyone does, and doing it well, let’s also do what no other city has the guts to do. 

Bob Rivard lamented in the article I previously referenced that by the time citizens will be invited to join the discussion on the 2017 bond issue, the big decisions will already be made.  I agree.  Help me start the conversation for 2022.  At a recent meeting of the City Council’s Economic and Human Development Committee to discuss potential investments in healthcare and biosciences by the city in the current bond issue, District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg summarized the point I hope to make, “If the discussion about the bond is to be transformative rather than just about infrastructure, we have to have these conversations.”

What I described here is not the only way forward, and it is not even the only way to invest in our STEM economy, but now is the time to start the conversation for the 2022 bond. Now is the time to start the conversation about what city we want to be in 2030.