Eric Garcetti's Legacy as LA's First 'High Tech Mayor'

Sarah Favot

Favot is an award-winning journalist and adjunct instructor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She previously was an investigative and data reporter at national education news site The 74 and local news site LA School Report. She's also worked at the Los Angeles Daily News. She was a Livingston Award finalist in 2011 and holds a Master's degree in journalism from Boston University and BA from the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.

When Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti took office he pledged to be the city's first "high tech mayor," but did President Joe Biden's pick for the next ambassador to India make good on that?

Biden officially named Garcetti as his pick to the ambassadorship last week, after months of speculation. If confirmed by the Senate, the mayor who oversaw an ever worsening homeless crisis and lured the Olympics back to Los Angeles will cut short his term ending in December 2022.

Paul Bricault, who co-founded and is the managing director of venture capital firm Amplify.LA, said Garcetti was the city's most engaged mayor on tech in at least the last 25 years.

"He used his bully pulpit frequently to promote L.A. as a tech hub and he made himself widely available to drive interest in L.A. tech," Bricault, who sits on Garcetti's tech innovation council, said.

But did this engagement produce results or was Los Angeles ripe for an explosion of the tech sector on its own?

Bricault said it's almost impossible to measure, but he said the mayor's proselytization of tech helped.

Elected in 2013, Garcetti took the helm before creator houses emerged in the Hollywood Hills and the Uber-fueled gig economy roiled the state. Once confined to "Silicon Beach," the tech industry has erupted throughout the region during his tenure.

Silicon Valley behemoths like Google, Apple, Facebook and Netflix have opened offices in L.A. in addition to homegrown giants like SpaceX and Snap Inc.

Garcetti called it a "once-in-a-lifetime moment" for this global tech capital. In some ways, it is true the forces that have shaped Los Angeles over his tenure have also reshaped the world.

And he hasn't been shy injecting himself in the industry and pushing for public-private partnerships such as Urban Movement Lab, a transportation accelerator that's encouraged the development of delivery robots. Amid a furor in Hollywood over the lack of diversity, last year he created "L.A. Collab" with Eva Longoria to push for more Latinos in the industry.

But part of the journey has been a lot like those electric scooters that dot street corners from Venice to Eagle Rock — loved by many, but questioned by others who've seen Garcetti's grand vision sometimes careen out of control.

At times, Garcetti has faced backlash from residents who are not ready for some of the innovations he embraced and the City Council has been forced to respond to disgruntled constituents by enacting regulations to tamp down those technologies.

Photo by David Vives on Unsplash

And civic problems that have plagued Garcetti's tenure like the homelessness and housing affordability crises have interfered with the tech industry from thriving, observers say.

"The only failure I would say that the political leadership has made in L.A. is really making a truly affordable city to make sure you have talent that want to move here and to really flourish," said Taj Eldridge, who used to lead investment at the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator and now has launched his own venture capital fund. "We should have learned from what's happening in San Francisco with a lot of displacement of not only just employees, but the support staff for employees."

Top talent graduating from UCLA and USC may rethink their plans to stay and work by the beach in sunny Los Angeles because the visibility of homelessness has grown beyond Skid Row in recent years, Eldridge said. And many of those tech companies and VC funds are attracted to L.A. because of the elite universities in the region, not necessarily because of what the mayor has done, he said.

Garcetti championed private efforts like L.A. Tech Talent Pipeline, which brings together the public and private sectors to expand training and job opportunities for future tech workers as well as PledgeLA, an effort to encourage diversity in the tech industry.

Open Data, Scooters and the Shared Economy

Less than one year after Garcetti took office, he installed the city's first chief innovation technology officer to implement "new tools and technologies" within City Hall and also to work with the city's tech leaders to "deploy innovative technology and promote local job creation."

A self-described, "amateur coder," Garcetti said he would publish data like city employee payroll records to make the bureaucracy of City Hall more transparent. But his chief data officer Abhi Nemani left a year after the city launched its open data portal in 2014. Garcetti's office bragged that it included more than 100 data sets, and although the cache of data has grown, some of it is outdated or incomplete.

Worse, said Dana Chinn, a lecturer at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the data sets weren't helpful.

"It was like the data sets that were chosen to be on the portal were the most user friendly as opposed to the ones that were really the ones that we needed to attack social issues," said Chinn, who researched open data in Los Angeles County. "Nobody was paying attention for the quality of data, as to whether or not we were getting the data sets that we really needed."

And she said Los Angeles has struggled to engage the tech community in ways that New York was able to.

Garcetti faced similar problems when he embraced electric scooters. Critics decried the city for shortsightedness.

At first the zippy scooters were hailed, but soon they flooded city streets largely concentrated on the Westside. Residents complained users of the wheeled vehicles were speeding, collided with pedestrians or were parked in front of doorways or in the middle of sidewalks.

It took months to come up with regulations as residents' frustration grew.

Garcetti said "people have loved" the scooters, but acknowledged safety concerns.

Garcetti faced an even more critical hurdle in the sharing economy.

Before short-term rentals were legalized, the Garcetti administration negotiated a deal so that homeowners who rented out their residences on platforms like Airbnb would pay a 14% tourist tax to the city. It was estimated in 2017 the rentals would generate $37 million annually.

But outrage ensued in many residential neighborhoods as short-term rentals proliferated.

And after three years of debate, city councilmembers heeded those constituents' calls and approved regulations that limited hosts to renting out their homes to 120 days a year. Amid pressure, Garcetti ultimately supported the new rules, even though Airbnb said the city would lose out on millions of dollars.

Playing Nice

Garcetti's bullishness on tech sometimes conflicted with the conciliatory tone that the mayor often took.

"Sometimes he was willing to say, 'Okay be upset with me,' like Airbnb, and sometimes there were moments where it looked like he didn't want to make the tough calls," said Loyola Law School Professor Jessica Levinson.

The Airbnb battle was an example of how L.A.'s weak mayor system stymied Garcetti's power and forced him to rely on the bully pulpit, she said. He lured in businesses with promises, but ultimately it was the City Council that set rules and regulations that could undermine those relationships.

Judith Goldman, co-founder of Keep Neighborhoods First, which is part of a broader coalition working to track enforcement of the city's home sharing ordinance, accused Garcetti of working behind the scenes to entice Airbnbs and others into L.A. to generate tourism dollars.

"I think he encouraged it and I think he was hypocritical because he knew that we were trying to regulate it and he was obstructive in the regulation and he has been obstructive in the enforcement," she said.

Green Initiatives

Garcetti, who co-founded the Climate Mayors, has promoted himself as an environmental steward. Shortly after taking office he appointed Matt Petersen to a new post as chief sustainability officer.

And in 2019, he introduced a "Green New Deal'" that would make the city's power supply 100% renewable by 2050. But it was met with criticism by activists who said it didn't go far enough.

A year later, he updated the plan to accelerate the city's goals.

With L.A.'s legendary traffic and pollution generated by gas-powered vehicles, Garcetti has sought ways to reduce emissions.

The city made history last year when it purchased 155 electric buses last year, making it the largest-ever single order for electric buses in the U.S. and Garcetti pledged to make L.A.'s bus fleet entirely emissions-free in time for the 2028 Olympic Games.

"Mayor Garcetti really prioritized inviting the world to deploy their innovations to Los Angeles and I think he lived up to that," said Petersen, who now leads LACI.

Last year Garcetti announced the formation of a new Transportation Technology Innovation Zone, under the auspices of Urban Movement Lab, at the Warner Center in the West San Fernando Valley. Described as a testing ground for new mobility technology, it is helping develop robots and drones that will deliver food and other goods across the region.

But already, there are questions about the technology taking jobs from people and what it will mean for robots to flood communities.

Still Valley Industry Commerce Association President Stuart Waldman gives Garcetti credit for carving out tech as an issue.

"I can think of a lot of failures but not in the context of the tech industry," he said. "When the bar is so low because of the previous administrations, just doing anything would be considered movement and he had quite a few successes."

Rachel Uranga and Francesca Billington contributed to this story.

This story has been updated to correctTaj Eldridge's former role at LACI.

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Meet the New SoCal Accelerator for Biotech Startups

Keerthi Vedantam

Keerthi Vedantam is a bioscience reporter at dot.LA. She cut her teeth covering everything from cloud computing to 5G in San Francisco and Seattle. Before she covered tech, Keerthi reported on tribal lands and congressional policy in Washington, D.C. Connect with her on Twitter, Clubhouse (@keerthivedantam) or Signal at 408-470-0776.

MedTech Innovator, created by Paul Grand, former CEO of a slew of biotech startups, has long been hailed as a successful accelerator that helped bring 74 medical products to market, from implants to prosthetics.

Now, the eight-year-old program has launched BioTools Innovator, a new virtual accelerator for genomics, personal medicine, targeted drug therapy and other life science startups. The program expands the accelerator's focus on medical devices to biotechnology, including platforms and other diagnostic tools that will improve health.

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Column: Five Reasons Why Space Matters (Hint: It's Not Tourism)

Krisztina 'Z' Holly
Krisztina "Z" Holly is a venture partner with Good Growth Capital and an advisor to leaders harnessing untapped innovation and novel business models for scale. Z is an MIT-trained engineer and serial tech entrepreneur who has been scouting, advising and investing in early-stage deep tech innovators for more than two decades.

Last night, Rocket Lab made a big comeback from its failed launch last May. The Long Beach startup's Electron rocket launched a satellite for the U.S. Space Force, bringing their total to 105.

This capped a busy month for space, with Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos making their space dreams come true in the weeks prior. But with all the attention on the billionaire's exploits, are we missing the bigger picture?

The lack of coverage for Rocket Lab's rebound is just as telling as the fanfare around Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin's flights. Space tourism is distracting us from why we should actually care about space.

The Biggest Space News of the Year

While the public has debated the merits of this month's sub-orbital joyrides, the media missed the biggest aerospace event of the year a month ago, when Hawthorne-based SpaceX launched their Transporter‐2 mission on June 30.

What was so revolutionary about last month's launch? Nothing. And that's partly the point. Launches are becoming routine thanks to reusable launch vehicles.

But the Transporter‐2 mission was significant, because the rideshare mission launched 88 different satellites for customers into orbit, enabling innovation for scores of organizations.

The launch was the first for Santa Barbara startup Umbra, which has developed technology capable of seeing at night and through dense clouds; it has since been added to a joint $950M Air Force contract. The payload also included a competing satellite from Iceye, manufactured in Irvine, and two cubesats from San Diego-based General Atomics to test optical communications between satellites and from satellites to drones.

As a preeminent hub for aerospace, Southern California stands to gain greatly as launches become more frequent and the industry re-emerges from its post-'80s slumber. But other hubs are rapidly catching up.

As a venture capitalist and advisor to space—and other—startups, I've seen the sector evolve into something barely recognizable from the time I started my career as an engineer on the Space Shuttle Main Engine decades ago. Here are five reasons we should care.

1. Space Improves Our Quality of Life

If you looked at your phone this morning to get the weather forecast or check the route to your first meeting, you can thank satellites for the help.

"The blue dot on your phone is possible due to billions of dollars of space infrastructure," says Van Espahbodi, managing partner and co‐founder of Starburst, a company that catalyzes connections in the aerospace industry. "Sure it results in food delivery, dating apps and so many innovations in daily life, but none of this would be possible without the boundaries of exploration into space."

A SpaceX Starlink satellite

Space isn't just delivering convenience, it's democratizing access to data and technology, too.

"There are four billion people unconnected in this world," says Akash Systems CEO and founder Felix Ejeckam, who aims to expand global access to broadband. "Unless you're still going to run expensive fiber optic cables all over the Earth, you have no choice but to drop internet beams from space."

Programs like OneWeb and SpaceX's Starlink are bringing broadband connectivity to every corner of the globe, and Akash has developed advanced materials that will help reduce the cost and increase speeds of such Internet satellites, aiming to make these services more accessible and ubiquitous.

On the flip side—those times we claim we're "off the grid" from work for a week? Those days might be numbered.

2. Space Lets Us Understand Our World and Adapt to Climate Change

With all this talk of Mars missions as our "Plan B," you might ask, "Why not invest in the planet we have?" The aerospace industry is doing that, too.

Satellites are critical for sensing our world—tracking changes in infrastructure, weather and the environment over time. Satellites can measure the height of entire oceans within an accuracy of about an inch, and NASA's first TROPICS cubesat, launched on Transporter-2, will use microwaves to predict hurricanes.

"Our space endeavors have been instrumental to understanding the extent of climate change on Earth using satellite data from NASA and NOAA," says Jessica Rousset, Deputy director of the Arizona State University Interplanetary Initiative.

Government efforts are complemented by an ever‐expanding collection of private constellations with new capabilities. With these expanding capabilities we can sense new things—and sense them more often. Inexpensive infrared and hyperspectral imaging of crops can help farmers make better decisions and make agriculture more productive and resource‐ efficient. Soon, we'll even be able to see underground, thanks to companies like Lunasonde.

Granted, the carbon emissions from rocket launches can have their own negative impact on the environment. Fortunately, some launch services—including Blue Origin—are shifting to less‐ polluting fuels like hydrogen.

3. Space Enables Things We Could Never Do Before

The unique environment of space unlocks new opportunities in science and industry that would be worthy of science fiction movies.

Companies like Varda plan to set up self‐assembling, automated factories on orbit to manufacture things. Production of semiconductors, protein crystals, polymers, new drugs or optical fibers might benefit from the zero‐gravity, near‐vacuum conditions of space.

Some have proposed setting up 24/7 solar farms in space and beaming the energy down to Earth using lasers or microwaves.

And 21st‐century prospectors have set their sights skyward, with dreams of mining asteroids for precious materials. Last year, Japan hosted the first successful asteroid sample recovery mission, landing their loot in the Australian outback.

Not everyone believes space production will be practical anytime soon, but research in space has already led to discoveries in material science, plasma physics and biology.

The publicly‐funded International Space Station has been a productive early laboratory. Now, space infrastructure developer Axiom Space is working towards a 2024 launch of their initial components for the next generation commercial space station, partially funded by a $140M NASA grant.

4. Space Has Created a Burgeoning New Industry

Space has another very practical benefit; it has created an entirely new sector of the economy. Early governmental funding and discoveries has set the stage for an entirely new ecosystem of startups, suppliers and service companies sustained by private dollars. Morgan Stanley estimates that the global space industry—$350B as of 2016—will expand to over $1 trillion by 2040.

These companies are driving innovation, fueling economic growth, and creating new jobs in an industry where the United States still maintains a manufacturing edge.

Satellites in space means the need for infrastructure, being built now. Orbit Fab, the "Gas Stations in Space" company, launched the world's first satellite fuel tanker on Transporter‐2. They are building a materials supply chain to support a space economy that CEO Daniel Faber predicts will ultimately lead to permanent jobs in orbit. (Full disclosure: I'm an investor.)

"Fuel is now available for purchase and delivery in space," says Faber, "And we don't have to keep throwing away perfectly good satellites when they run out of fuel."

In the past NASA has justified their funding by pointing at thousands of technologies spun out of the space program—memory foam, cochlear implants, freeze dried food, CMOS image sensors and powdered lubricants — to name a few.

"But today, it's almost like the reverse is happening," says Jonathan Fentzke, the newest managing director of the Techstars Space accelerator. Space is driving demand for technology. "Unique challenges on orbit, like petabytes of image data streamed daily or the lack of heat dissipation in a vacuum, means the industry is always looking for new technologies and suppliers to solve their challenges." The June 30 launch of three SAR satellites alone will add 30-40 terabytes of data per day to the cloud.

Which is why his 2021 cohort includes startups like Pixspan, an image compression company with roots in Hollywood, and Thermexit, whose carbon nanomaterials were originally designed for supercomputers. These companies are finding a new thirst for their technologies thanks to the space industry.

5. Space Inspires Discovery

And finally, space still holds a special place by being the final frontier. While there aren't many places left on Earth that haven't appeared in a selfie, endless discoveries await us beyond our atmosphere.

The James Webb Space Telescope

Southern California has a long history of space adventures, including Chuck Yeager's historic sound barrier-busting flight in 1947. From NASA-JPL's Curiosity and Perseverance rovers to SpaceX's dreams of colonizing Mars, we continue to be the epicenter of big-idea space exploration

And our discoveries aren't just for adventure, either. By exploring beyond our planet, we can prepare for interplanetary human settlement, learn about the origins of life or better understand the beginning of the universe.

In El Segundo, Northrop Grumman is assembling the much awaited James Webb Space Telescope, soon headed a million miles away to "L2," a cold, stable perch past the moon. From there it will peer deep into space, providing views of faraway exoplanets and glimpses of light from 13.6 billion years ago, when the earliest stars and galaxies were just forming in the universe.

Our Future in Space is Inevitable

Things have changed for the better in aerospace over the last decade.

Back when I was a young engineer working at Rocketdyne, my work was funded by NASA. I remember how we depended on the largess of government dollars and lived by the whims of public sentiment. Risk and new ideas weren't readily accepted, and failure wasn't an option.

Today, aerospace is more iterative, entrepreneurial, and largely driven by commercial interests. "There's so much money and interest out there, and there is more of a culture of innovation," says Carrie Hernandez, formerly of SpaceX and now CEO and Co‐Founder of Rebel Space Technologies in Long Beach.

And private space investments have never been higher. "In 2021, private capital will invest more money in the space industry than NASA will spend on everything," NASA-JPL physicist and local angel investor Shanti Rao quipped recently on Twitter.

And with a few exceptions, we're exploring at relatively bargain‐basement prices. Reusable rockets, space servicing, robotics and other technologies make space more affordable than ever.

"In the 60s, we went at great expense—often around 4% of GDP. But today, we're doing twenty times more at one‐tenth the price," says a colleague who asked to remain anonymous because he doesn't have permission to speak on behalf of his government employer. "And this time we're not just stopping by to say hello, we're setting up a permanent base."

Private industry is taking the lead, but Southern California needs to keep its eye on the ball. These days space companies can be almost anywhere, and Colorado, Texas and Northern California have become major hubs of space innovation, too.

NASA's Apollo and Space Shuttle programs were as much a PR effort as they were science expeditions. And those educational efforts have paid dividends by inspiring more public funding for research and development and a whole generation of kids to pursue science and math.

Will Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic succeed at filling this inspirational role? I hope so. But it's time for us to celebrate and support all the entrepreneurs exploring the boundaries of space.

Because it turns out, you don't need to be a billionaire to pursue your space dreams. And with or without public support, the space industry is now inevitable.