At the end of his first day as the director of UCSD Connect, Fred Cutler’s office still had the look of a recently vacated apartment. It was clean, but not pristine. The empty nail holes in the bare, white walls indicated where pictures once hung. It had the aura of an area set aside in time.
And it was eerily clear: Fred Cutler was not treading on virgin territory.
Cutler’s first day was almost exactly 10 months to the day that the organization’s first and only director had died of cancer. The late Bill Otterson was hand-picked to run Connect in 1986 by UCSD sociologist Mary Walshok.
Walshok had studied the culture of technology in Silicon Valley and wanted to establish a similar entrepreneurial atmosphere in San Diego.
It has since become Connect’s mission to promote contacts between UCSD researchers and the business community in order to promote business opportunities in beginning and existing companies.
After months of persuasion by Walshok, now UCSD’s associate vice chancellor of extended studies and public programs, Otterson took the position.
Last November, The Wall Street Journal proclaimed San Diego one of the 13 hottest cities in the high-tech field, crediting Otterson as the “local cheerleader.”
Following A Leader
In the 14 years Otterson led Connect, funding sponsors increased from 30 to 600 and the annual budget increased from $100,000 to $1.7 million.
“There are so many people that have come to me and said they knew Bill and how much they respected him and all he did to get the Connect program going, but we need to move ahead,” said Cutler, 55. “The San Diego environment has changed dramatically since Connect started and we’re right on the cusp of San Diego exploding.
“So we need to ratchet this up and kind of call it Connect 2.0 , a whole new release of this program.”
Whatever improved applications Cutler’s Connect 2.0 has, he’s not saying.
He has his own ideas that include increased corporate activity in local universities. A daunting task in a city dominated by two publicly supported universities.
But he wants to talk to “key technology business leaders,” “a large number of UCSD faculty,” and “the great Connect team” before he makes a public stand.
“The specific direction, the specific vision that we’re going to have is going to be molded over the next 60 days,” Cutler said. “I’m going to be a sponge for the next 60 days.”
Crossing The Line
If that seems too much in too little time, consider Cutler has exceeded limitations his entire life. It started as a teen-ager when he raced factory-experimental Dodges for the Chrysler racing team.
Although he was born in Whittier, Cutler’s family moved to Michigan when he was 5.
The youngest of three boys, his father was the director of service for Chrysler Corp. in Detroit.
“We won the nationals in 1964 at Indianapolis,” Cutler said, “but we raced pretty much all over the country.”
Cutler is in the process of acquiring a 1941 Plymouth Woody from a seller in Maine. So far, he has no idea how he is going to get the car to San Diego. He also owns a 1956 Corvette.
“My dad is still alive; he’s 93, and if I don’t get another Chrysler product before he gets too much more along he’s really going to be upset with me,” Cutler said. “He doesn’t like the Corvette.”
Off the track, Cutler was in the swimming pool, parlaying the backstroke into a swimming scholarship at Western Michigan University.
There he got his bachelor’s degree in marketing and a master’s in business administration.
His mother was a schoolteacher, as was his father before he got the Chrysler job. So after college, Cutler started teaching at a small community college in upstate New York.
While Cutler taught marketing, management and advertising, his future wife, Sandra, worked down the hall for the assistant to the university president.
“She paid no attention to me,” he said. “Every time I walked down the hall, she would close the door.”
Cutler eventually got his foot in the door and the two have been married for 31 years. They have one son: a 29-year-old founder of a Chicago-based Internet start-up.
Cutler was soon offered a teaching position at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and the opportunity to obtain a doctorate degree.
His college choice was simple , go to the University of Southern California where familiarity with a computer language was required or to UCLA, where familiarity with a foreign language was required.
Cutler decided against the foreign language and took a double doctorate from USC in marketing and social psychology.
Though now Cutler concedes his decision really came down to his dislike of that “funny blue color” UCLA’s football team pranced around in on Saturdays.
After USC, he moved back to the East Coast to work for the management-consulting firm of Booz Allan & Hamilton.
Five years later, Cutler began an odyssey through America’s technology sector that culminated with his last company, DigitalStyle Corp., a company he founded in 1995, which was purchased by Netscape Communications Corp. for $36 million in 1998. Before the merger, as it was described to the Securitities and Exchange Commission, was complete, America Online bought Netscape and the deal increased to $105 million.
DigitalStyle was funded in part by local venture capital heavyweights Enterprise Partners Venture Capital and Mission Ventures.
During his professional odyssey, though, Cutler worked for such companies as Compaq Computer Corp., Mattel Inc., Oracle Corp., and the merged Netscape/AOL company.
Time On Boards
Over the last two years, Cutler has kept busy. Aside from investing in early stage start-ups, he served on the boards of local companies SeminarSource.com, theGolfer.com, Media DNA, and his son’s Chicago-based company, Curious Networks.
Now that he’s the new Connect director, “all it means is I’ll have less time to surf,” he said.
It also means less time devoted to SDSU, where he was entrepreneur in residence in the school’s Entrepreneurial Management Center and a marketing professor.
Cutler believes he possesses all the scholastic tools and corporate connections to succeed as director of the new Connect program , an organization with a very similar background to the man that now leads it.
“Connect is a very unique program in that we have one leg outside the university and one leg in,” Cutler said. “So we have a great deal of latitude in finding the best ways to assist start-ups and assist companies in growing quickly.
“If you sat down with a clean sheet of paper and you asked: ‘How do we pull this off?’ You’d start with what we’ve got right here. I’m certain of that.”