Silicon Sandbox: Caltech’s Frederic Farina on deep tech, aliens and the ‘secret sauce’ for startups

Silicon Sandbox host and FOX TV Stations Chief Digital Officer Steve Chung sat down with Frederic Farina, chief innovation and corporate partnerships officer for the California Institute of Technology for a special episode on innovation in Los Angeles’ emerging tech scene. 

But the conversation didn’t stop there — it took an out-of-this-world turn toward the stars. Chung and Farina delved deep into the possibility of alien life and what Caltech is doing about it. 

When asked if it is Caltech’s position that extraterrestrial life exists somewhere in the universe, Farina explained that the likelihood is high.

"You do know that the headline of this article will be ‘Fred Farina confirms life outside of Earth,’" Chung joked. 

Farina recalled how he almost worked for SETI Institute, or The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. 

The two also discussed various highlights from Caltech and how the university cultivates itself in the highly competitive space of of technology oriented schools.  

Farina explains that the "secret sauce" to the university’s success is hand-picking faculty members and researchers and giving them freedom to explore their own unique areas of study. 

"At the same time we have centers that have a focus on one area," Farina said. 

He highlighted the Resnick Sustainability Institute, which researches technology aimed at solving issues created by climate change. The institute focuses on sustainability, ecology, water resources and much more.

Farina said various other research centers allow Caltech to tout itself as a true epicenter for technology that nurtures innovation and furthers development into research, which solves some of humanity’s most pressing challenges. 

"What is remarkable and unique about Caltech and maybe because of its size and also because of the culture is that it’s very multidisciplinary," Farina explained. 

Whether it’s artificial intelligence or techniques on carbon mapping, Farina says the variety of technological study offered at a university like Caltech allows it to thrive. And it’s mostly thanks to the faculty and the broad range of their research, Farina said. 

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"We don’t build huge groups in one area, we really have faculty members in different areas, and even across disciplines from say physics, math and astronomy, which is one division to biology and engineering and people talk, it’s a small campus, they get to know each other," Farina said.

Farina said this brings about an unforgettable exchange of great minds which will ultimately develop life-changing technologies. 

Farina and Chung also talked about the importance of a concept known as "deep tech," which is heavily cultivated and sought out at Caltech. 

Deep tech fields include artificial intelligence, quantum computing, blockchain and cryptocurrencies, drones and much more. 

Farina explained that Caltech looks to build business models around new technologies rather than a business idea that is looking for technology to implement the idea. 

When investing in something like deep tech, Farina said the success of a potential startup looking to rise in an environment like Silicon Beach requires several key factors: an ecosystem of enthusiastic and innovative minds, money to implement their vision and the necessary space that will allow the startup to thrive and operate. 

In a previous episode of Silicon Sandbox, founders of Two Bit Circus' Micro-Amusement Park in downtown Los Angeles explained how the park's location in LA's arts district originally made for the perfect setting for their futuristic carnival. 

RELATED: Silicon Sandbox: Two Bit Circus founders on running amusement park in the pandemic era

But when their location was forced to close due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, they were forced to pivot to an exclusively virtual platform hosting interactive arcades and other digitally-based events. 

"We are all adjusting to the changes that this pandemic has made to our lives," Two Bit Circus website read in September, when the pandemic was at a more devastating stage. "We’ve created a customized interactive-cast in which you and your guests can play a set of games. The content is fully customizable, from the games questions, topics, all the way to the branding of the web app."

But as Two Bit Circus has proven and Farina explained, "The space is somewhat less important." 

"People and money is number one, you can always find space," he added. 

Episodes of Silicon Sandbox can be found anywhere you listen to podcasts as well as the podcasts page on the FOX 11 Los Angeles website, which is home to even more exciting new content.