I heard a story on BBC radio today about a venture between Cambridge University and MIT, started in 1999 with a $100 million fund intended to create a culture of entrepreneurism in Cambridge, England. The idea that’s the basis of this concept—that there is a causal relationship between entrepreneurial startup companies and universities with top science and engineering schools—has recently been suggested by Guy Kawasaki and Paul Graham.
Guy’s post on How To Kick Silicon Valley’s Butt advises
The most important thing you can do is establish a world-class school of engineering.
First rate compsci depts are important to this, preferably one of the top handful in the world, and has to stand up to MIT and Stanford. Professors consider one factor only - they are attracted by good colleagues. So if you can attract the best people then you will create a chain reaction which would be unstoppable.
Their thinking is that Great Engineers have Great Ideas and create Great Companies. Considering that the universities with the top three engineering schools—MIT, Stanford, and UC Berkeley—also happen to be in the top locations for innovative startups, this idea seems to make sense. But the next four top engineering schools—Georgia Tech, Illinois, Purdue, and Michigan (Go Blue!)—haven’t exactly spawned mini silicon valleys. So, what’s the truth here?
Well consider this question: does the movie industry exist in LA because USC has the top film school, or does USC have the top film school because it’s in the same city as the epicenter of the film industry? Which is the cause and which is the effect?
When I was considering EE faculty positions in the early ‘90s, I recall being told that Stanford was different from other schools: its professors were expected to get patents and create companies. That wasn’t exactly true, but that was Stanford’s reputation, as was MIT’s—they were viewed as different from other universities in how they operated. Because of that reputation, people who were interested in entrepreneurism were drawn to those schools. (I can’t say that I heard the same of UC Berkeley at the time, nor did I get that impression when I interviewed there).
My first point is that these schools attract engineers with an entrepreneurial spirit because of their already established reputation. There are incredibly talented engineering faculty at Illinois, Purdue and Michigan but that doesn’t mean that they have the interest and skills to create their own company. I don’t believe that applying an If you build it, they will come approach applies to creating a healthy entrepreneurial community—a great science and engineering school is probably a necessary requirement but is a long way from being a sufficient one. There are engineering students equally as talented as Google’s founders Page and Brin elsewhere. Something more than having great engineering faculty and students are necessary to create Google and the many other successful startups that have come out of Stanford.
So what else is necessary? Guy gives several other requirements, such as high housing prices and a great climate. I’ll be a little more abstract than this with my second point and simply say that entrepreneurism is a part of Silicon Valley’s culture—it’s in the air. You read about it in the local papers. You see it everywhere on the Stanford campus with seminars, conferences, classes and programs supporting and promoting innovation. Every cafe and restaurant in Palo Alto is filled with people developing new technology and innovative business ideas. The owner of Buck’s in Woodside, the hottest place on earth to do startup business deals over breakfast, once told me that he’s had to chase people away from his restaurant in the morning who were hanging around outside with business plans, harassing people going in for breakfast like derelicts on a street corner asking for spare change. Ed Zander, the current CEO of Motorola who moved to Illinois from his Sun job in Silicon Valley, once said in an interview that the biggest change moving to Illinois was that employees at Motorola talked about things like picnics and family activities outside of meetings rather than talking work and business 24/7 like at Sun Microsystems.
Why does LA have more aspiring screenwriters per capita than anywhere else? People everywhere believe that they can write a good script, but the film culture in LA inspires those living there to make the effort to write those scripts. The office admin who has written a script in LA would have never written one had they been living in Tucson. Canada produces a huge number of great hockey players per capita because hockey is in the culture—if you are an athlete there, you just naturally take up hockey. It’s on TV, it’s office talk, it’s schoolyard talk, it’s a common pastime. Just like movies in LA. Just like technology startups in the Bay Area. And once that culture is created, people with that leaning are drawn to it.
If Brin and Page had been at the University of Michigan, would they have created Google? Probably not. Not because they weren’t at a great engineering school, but because they wouldn’t have been exposed to the entrepreneurial culture in Ann Arbor that they experienced in Palo Alto. And the advice that they received. And the financial support available. And the people with the same entrepreneurial attitude that they had.
How do you recreate Silicon Valley elsewhere? Make entrepreneurism a part of the culture. How do you do that? Talk to people like Guy and others who have it in their bones, then act like a scientist: dissect, analyze, develop hypotheses, model the data, replicate the system. If you’re right, you’ll achieve what’s necessary for every good scientific theory: repeatability. Maybe Guy said it right after all:
Silicon Valley is…a state of mind.