A Year After a Close Call with COVID, the Montgomery Summit Goes Virtual

Ben Bergman

Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.

montgomery summit

When one of Southern California's largest gatherings of tech investors and executives of the year in Southern California begins Wednesday it will be held virtually, just like every other event is these days.

What a difference a year makes.

Last year's Montgomery Summit, also held during the first week of March, brought together hundreds of tech titans to the upscale Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows in Santa Monica, just as the seriousness of COVID was becoming abundantly clearer every day.

It was the last time many people saw each other in the flesh.

By that point, some offices had already closed and other conferences on the tech circuit were cancelled - including the F8 developer meeting, the Game Developers Conference and YPO EDGE.

Researchers have linked up to 300,000 cases of COVID to a gathering of biotech professionals held in Boston the week before last year's summit.

The Montgomery Summit avoided a similar fate through sheer luck, according to Jeffrey Klausner, an infectious disease expert at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health, who was among those at the time who said the conference could safely proceed.

"For a transmission event to occur you need a number of people who are actively infectious," he said. "They got lucky."

Up until that week, there had been only 100 novel coronavirus cases reported in the U.S., but just as the summit was starting, Los Angeles County officials declared a health emergency, confirming six new cases of coronavirus. They also warned for the first time schools and businesses could close.

Jamie Montgomery, co-founder and managing partner of March Capital and the well-connected impresario of the conference, said he spent several sleepless nights tossing and turning as he agonized whether to cancel the event he had spent a year planning. But he decided to press ahead – with modifications – after he said county health officials reassured him it was safe because there had not yet been a case of community spread in Los Angeles.

"If it was a week later, we probably would have canceled it," Montgomery said. "But before that, it was just kind of bubbling underneath the surface."

Montgomery Summit Hand sanitizer stations were popular at the 2020 Montgomery Summit.Photo by Ben Bergman

The conference went on with precautions that now seem routine but then were novel – ubiquitous hand sanitizer, a strict prohibition on handshakes, frequent cleaning of shared surfaces and a ban on foreign travelers. There was also a physician put on standby, presumably in the event that someone suddenly fell ill.

But no one yet knew about social distancing or masks and attendees crowded next to each other on white leather couches and lingered over buffet tables filled with trays of shared food, including edible mugs adorned with the conference logo.

"We were all quite naive," Montgomery said. "We probably all underestimated the perniciousness of the virus."

Only about 15% of the more than 1,000 registered to attend officially cancelled, though it seemed like much more as rows of seats remained empty and attendance thinned, especially as the conference stretched into its second day.

Tom McInerney, a Los Angeles-based angel investor who has backed Bird, Tala and Uber, said by that point he did not think it was safe to attend a conference. The previous week he stopped meeting people in-person and yanked his three-year-old out of school as he saw the number of COVID cases skyrocketing overseas.

"I was a little shocked that more people did not see it coming," McInerney said. "A virus doesn't obey the borders. It's such a hyper-connected world."

But plenty of other attendees pressed forward, believing the virus was being overhyped and not wanting to disrupt a familiar yearly ritual.

"Of course I was going to show," said Chuck Davis, chairman and CEO of Prodege, LLC, an Internet and media company, who has attended the 18-year-old conference for more than a decade. "It's L.A.'s biggest tech event of the year and I am a friend of Jamie."

Between the usual fare – pitch sessions from companies like 3D rocket-maker Relativity Space and interactive game publisher Scopely – organizers shuffled the line-up to include panels about the virus that was very much on everyone's mind.

Most predictions would prove far too optimistic. Michael Milken, the former junk-bond king turned medical philanthropist, said he expected a COVID test kit would be available in six months and economists forecast a swift recession based on how quickly China was returning to normal.

Davis remembers finding it hard to concentrate on panels with new headlines constantly popping up on his smartphone about the worsening virus.

"It was like going to school before the snowstorm is coming," he said. "You know they are going to cancel school. You can't focus because you see the clouds."

As the event concluded, Montgomery asked the thinned-out crowd to let organizers know if "anything happened."

"Some of you made a tough decision by coming here," he told a lunchtime audience nibbling on chicken salads. "I'll breathe easy the next couple weeks if nothing happens."

Montgomery now says he wondered whether he would come across as overly alarmist, but he says he always prefers to err on the side of transparency.

Most importantly, he never got any reports of any attendees later getting sick.

"We're very fortunate," he said.

This year's summit – held all online - features Eric Yuan, CEO & founder of Zoom, author Deepak Chopra, Darius Adamczyk, CEO of Honeywell, and Jim Whitehurst, president of IBM.

"This year, we're able to get these incredible keynotes because they're not traveling and they're available," Montgomery said. "We have our best lineup by far, ever."

There will be about 100 hours of content available exclusive to those who have paid and registered but for the first time, 12 hours of plenary sessions will be free for anyone to stream on YouTube, which will open up panels to a much bigger audience around the world.

Still, video conferencing can only do so much and Montgomery is looking forward to next year's event, which he hopes will be a welcome return to investors jetting in from around the world to cement deals while munching on burgers from the In-N-Out truck at the Fairmont's bungalow.

Planning for better days ahead, he is excited to add some new bells and whistles, such as a performance by the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles at a Getty Villa reception and an appearance by the Budweiser's Clydesdale horses.

"We're going to have some fun so that people will go home and tell stories," Montgomery said. "We look forward to next year."


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NASA’s JPL Receives Billions to Begin Understanding Our Solar System

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College and previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Send tips or pitches to samsonamore@dot.la and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

NASA’s JPL Receives Billions to Begin Understanding Our Solar System
Evan Xie

NASA’s footprint in California is growing as the agency prepares for Congress to approve its proposed 2024 budget.

The overall NASA budget swelled 6% from the prior year, JPL deputy director Larry James told dot.LA. He added he sees that as a continuation of the last two presidential administrations’ focus on modernizing and bolstering the nation’s space program.

The money goes largely to existing NASA centers in California, including the Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory run with Caltech, Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley and Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.

California remains a hotspot for NASA space activity and investment. In 2021, the agency estimated its economic output impact on the region to be around $15.2 billion. That was far more than its closest competing states, including Texas ($9.3 billion) and Maryland (roughly $8 billion). That same year, NASA reported it employed over 66,000 people in California.

“In general, Congress has been very supportive” of the JPL and NASA’s missions, James said. “It’s generally bipartisan [and] supported by both sides of the aisle. In the last few years in general NASA has been able to have increased budgets.”

There are 41 current missions run by JPL and CalTech, and another 16 scheduled for the future. James added the new budget is “an incredible support for all the missions we want to do.”

The public-private partnership between NASA and local space companies continues to evolve, and the increased budget could be a boon for LA-based developers. Numerous contractors for NASA (including CalTech, which runs the JPL), Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and Northrop Grumman all stand to gain new contracts once the budget is finalized, partly because NASA simply needs the private industry’s help to achieve all its goals.

James said that there was only one JPL mission that wasn’t funded – a mission to send an orbital satellite to survey the surface and interior of Venus, called VERITAS.

NASA Employment and Output ImpactEvan Xie

The Moon and Mars

Much of the money earmarked in the proposed 2024 budget is for crewed missions. Overall, NASA’s asking for $8 billion from Congress to fund lunar exploration missions. As part of this, the majority is earmarked for the upcoming Artemis mission, which aims to land a woman and person of color on the Moon’s south pole.

While there’s a number of high-profile missions the JPL is working on that are focused on Mars, including Mars Sample Return project (which received $949 million in this proposed budget) and Ingenuity helicopter and Perseverance rover, JPL also received significant funding to study the Earth’s climate and behavior.

JPL also got funding for several projects to map our universe. One is the SphereX Near Earth Objects surveyor mission, the goal of which is to use telescopes to “map the entire universe,” James said, adding that the mission was fully funded.

International Space Station

NASA’s also asking for more money to maintain the International Space Station (ISS), which houses a number of projects dedicated to better understanding the Earth’s climate and behavior.

The agency requested roughly $1.3 billion to maintain the ISS. It also is increasing its investment in space flight support, in-space transportation and commercial development of low-earth orbit (LEO). “The ISS is an incredible platform for us,” James said.

James added there are multiple missions outside or on board the ISS now taking data, including EMIT, which launched in July 2022. The EMIT mission studies arid dust sources on the planet using spectroscopy. It uses that data to remodel how mineral dust movement in North and South America might affect the Earth’s temperature changes.

Another ISS mission JPL launched is called ECOSTRESS. The mission sent a thermal radiometer onto the space station in June 2018 to monitor how plants lose water through their leaves, with the goal of figuring out how the terrestrial biosphere reacts to changes in water availability. James said the plan is to “tell you the kind of foliage health around the globe” from space.

One other ISS project is called Cold Atom Lab. It is “an incredible fundamental physics machine,” James said, that’s run by “three Nobel Prize winners as principal investigators on the Space Station.” Cold Atom Lab is a physics experiment geared toward figuring out how quantum phenomena behave in space by cooling atoms with lasers to just below absolute zero degrees.

In the long term, James was optimistic NASA’s imaging projects could lead to more dramatic discoveries. Surveying the makeup of planets’ atmospheres is a project “in the astrophysics domain we’re very excited about,” James said. He added that this imaging could lead to information about life on other planets, or, at the very least, an understanding of why they’re no longer habitable.


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Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

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Maylin Tu
Maylin Tu is a freelance writer who lives in L.A. She writes about scooters, bikes and micro-mobility. Find her hovering by the cheese at your next local tech mixer.
Connie Llanos, Jordan Justus and Gene Oh
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