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I was in Silicon Valley last one week, and my cousin was kind enough to take me on a whirlwind tour of the silicon valley legends – Apple, Facebook, Google, Intel & Yahoo, and to the mother of all these guys, Stanford Univ.

There is of course no need to emphasise that silicon valley is the world’s greatest innovation ecosystem, but a recap does help.

 

startup ranking 1

Courtesy: TechCrunch

As you can see, SV ranks #1 on pretty much every parameter for innovative startup ecosystem.

I had been in the silicon valley not for anything to do with what silicon valley is famous for (computers and Internet), but to attend a prominent cleantech award event (the Cleantech Open at San Jose). This event featured some of the most innovative emerging minds and ideas across the entire cleantech spectrum.

While what I saw at the event in terms of emerging ideas was certainly interesting, however what was obvious was clean tech was in its very nascent stages. For it to start producing the kind of impact that information technology is having today in our lives, it needs to be far more innovative, grow and mature faster. Much faster.

But how can this innovation and growth be accelerated?

I will not pretend to have all the answers to the questions, but the zip-trip across silicon valley two days after the event, and a good amount of reading (especially a recently released book Dogfight) provided me with an interesting insight, which I thought I’d share with you.

Firstly, the pics to prove that I was indeed there 🙂

Apple – led to the top by a genius innovator, though some unfairly say he was only a genius marketer!

apple1

 Rarely gets the same iconic status as the rest of the silicon valley giants, but guess these guys still run most of our machines!

Intel1

 

The dino at Google – says it all, they try to do everything to be different, or at least perceived as different

google1

 The original dot com icon – now trying to reinvent itself under Marissa Mayer

yahoo2

Ensuring even their address is appealing enough to attract hacker talent
fb1

 Stanford Univ – genesis of most of the top talent that churns out blockbusters

Stanford 2

 

How did silicon valley get there?

If one were to argue how the silicon valley ecosystem helped companies such as Google or Apple to create such a dramatic difference worldwide, one could point to a number of aspects.

Some might even argue that it is the deliberate creation of a geek environment in the silicon valley companies that is a driver for innovation.

Sure, geekiness is in the air in SiliconValley. I did see the geek culture at work in the informality of the campuses. It was quite amazing that no one stopped us at any of gates/entrances of any of these companies (though I am sure there are enough cameras watching what was going on). We were able to breeze through most of these company premises and take photographs. Sure, we did not actually get into the offices and workplaces, but no one really even bothered to ask us who we were when we went about shooting tens of pictures. At Google, we were able to even ride the bicycles that were  lying on the ground, with no locks on.

Another sign of geekiness was the fact that other than at Intel, there appeared to be at least a few people at work during a Saturday evening. It could be because they were geeks, it could be because there was free food. Whatever, it would have been almost impossible to find so many employees at traditional US companies during a weekend.

I am sure that outside of a deliberate creation of geek environment, there are lots of things too that went into making silicon valley such a successful innovation ecosystem (see some good links I have provided at the end).

All these would make one wonder which of these variables/drivers one should tinker around with in order to create a similar, powerful ecosystem for another industry such as cleantech.

Proximity

While this debate should go on, I would point out to proximity as being a key driver. Let me explain.

The matrix below gives the distances between the 6 top SV icons that I visited.

Distance in Kms between the top silicon valley brands

Apple Facebook Google Intel Yahoo Stanford
Apple 24 13 14 14 22
Facebook 24 12 24 19 4
Google 13 12 14 9 11
Intel 14 24 14 9 23
Yahoo 14 19 9 9 18
Stanford 22 4 11 23 18

Now, what the above table shows is something incredible. All these guys are located within an hour’s drive from each other – in fact, less than half hour’s drive within each other on days without much traffic. Our entire trip to travel to all these places took less than 3 hours!

Just imagine what such proximity could do to high-end talent acquisition, which is perhaps the most crucial asset for innovation.

Is there any wonder at all why the top tech talent wishes to be in the silicon valley/bay area? The proximity means that they can easily shift from one company to another just in case say, Google doesn’t work out for them.

For those who wish to know how each of the iconic companies (especially Apple & Google) utilize their presence in the ecosystem to get top talent should read the recently released book Dogfight. In this book, one can see how, when Apple or Google was facing tremendous technology challenges in implementing an innovation, they are able to tap into their contacts and ex-employees in the silicon valley to get this required talent. Remember, some of these talent could be really scarce – there might just be less than half a dozen people in the world who might be able to solve a certain pioneering tech challenge, and it fhey happen to be in some other city or country, tough luck!

It is not just acquisition of talent, but also how the talent has an enabling framework to understand perspectives. For instance, when they were not rivals (and when Jobs was alive), he apparently could be seen walking with Larry Page and Sergey Brin on the streets of Palo Alto, discussing, I am sure some cutting edge stuff. What else but proximity could have facilitated such exchanges!

We all know such proximity of the various key stakeholders in an industry as an “industry cluster”. But what struck me is the extreme proximity of these top notch companies, which I am not sure one would be able to see in other industry clusters. For instance, does Detroit have the headquarters of top 5 auto companies in the world within half an hour of each other? Closer home, take even our own Indian IT industry. Does Bangalore have the top 5 Indian companies’ headquarters within half an hour of each other? I doubt the answer to each of the previous two questions is Yes. I am not an expert in clusters, but I think there is a fair chance that there is no other industry cluster in the world where the top 5 companies are so close to each other. (I guess the only exception one could make to my argument is Microsoft, located at Seattle, some 1350 Kms ).

Building a cleantech ecosystem – could proximity be a starting point here too?

I am positive that, if we look at building at a cleantech ecosystem, we will be looking at a whole lot of drivers and components to get us there. You will be considering a more supportive infrastructure, presence of suppliers of key components/solutions, funding / investing support needs to be available within the ecosystem, cutting edge academic infrastructure is required, strong marketing, sales and management talent to be available in the ecosystem too.

The question is of course, what is the starting point, if one were to try creating a similar ecosystem for cleantech innovation.

In my opinion, one of the best starting points could once again be proximity. Could we somehow create, somewhere in the world, 7-10 top companies that supply the key ingredients that constitute cleantech? Could these companies start getting staffed with some of the best brains in the world?

Sure, we might have to look at governments, or even international financing agencies like the World Bank helping create these seed companies. But beyond a certain stage, the ecosystem could gather a momentum of its own, just as silicon valley did, and get the rest of the pieces of the puzzle into place soon after.

All these are easier said than done, but the payoffs could be worth the effort. Just imagine if we could come up with fantastic products/solutions for energy, water, pollution and more within the next 25-30 years – the equivalents of the integrated chip, PC, smartphones, tablets and powerful collaborative platforms.

You might say it is a long shot, but even a long shot is worth it – after all, we are talking about saving the world!

Let me know your thoughts on this.

References

Dogfight – How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution

Rise of Startup Ecosystems

Silicon Valley Tech Innovation Ecosystem – Image, courtesy Accentu

Silicon Valley Ecosystem – Slideshare

Startup Ecosystem Report 2012 (Image)

Regional Knowledge Ecosystems – Image

What is an Innovation Ecosystem?