Monday, November 16, 2009

How to make the next Silicon Valley in Bellingham

I am in process of reading a great series of blog posts by Dug Song, a well-known genius in the security space that I have crossed paths with a bit while I was working at a company that was then named Hiverworld.  Dug lays out the failure of Ann Arbor to attract enough venture capital and top notch startups to make the city competitive with Boulder, Palo Alto, Berkley, etc.   Dug has a point of view I would almost like to steal verbatim to help grow Whatcom County and Belligham (except for the fact that I don't do skateboards):

"Yes, I'm actually from the Internet, having lived most of my adult life online. And to paraphrase a Radiohead song:
" I'm a geek. I'm a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here." After 15 years here, and seeing a ton of friends and companies come and go, I'm at a crossroads, trying to determine if I should keep my family here. While I've proven most of my family and friends wrong by staying this long, I can no longer ignore the giant sucking sound as the best, brightest, and most amazing people I've met here continue to be siphoned off to the coasts - and with them, the culture and community I've loved.  figure I have two more years to figure this out, before my 3-year old son starts school. So I've embarked on the ruthless execution of a completely self-serving agenda to fulfill my own nobrow, capitalist-pig hierarchy of needs by then:

a skatepark, and art/skate/punk culture
hacker culture and community

In trying to understand the commercial market for startups in Ann Arbor, Dug quotes a brilliant article by Paul Graham ("How to be Silicon Valley") where Graham describes what it takes to attract brilliant young people and the risk-taking entrepreneurs that drive wealth and growth in a few select cities across the nation:

"Nerds will pay a premium to live in a town where the smart people are really smart, but you don't have to pay as much for that. It's supply and demand: glamour is popular, so you have to pay a lot for it. Most nerds like quieter pleasures. They like cafes instead of clubs; used bookshops instead of fashionable clothing shops; hiking instead of dancing; sunlight instead of tall buildings. A nerd's idea of paradise is Berkeley or Boulder."

Graham ending quote makes me believe there is real hope for Bellingham to attract talent away from Berkeley and Boulder: 

"For all its power, Silicon Valley has a great weakness: the paradise Shockley found in 1956 is now one giant parking lot. San Francisco and Berkeley are great, but they're forty miles away. Silicon Valley proper is soul-crushing suburban sprawl. It has fabulous weather, which makes it significantly better than the soul-crushing sprawl of most other American cities. But a competitor that managed to avoid sprawl would have real leverage. All a city needs is to be the kind of place the next traitorous eight look at and say "I want to stay here," and that would be enough to get the chain reaction started.

1 comment:

Bernie said...

The remaking of Silicon Valley locally has been tried by many communities. It is a dream pursued by many before.

For the most part it doesn't work, and pursuing a dream that has a low chance of success, drains resources. This is what happened with NOAA, and continues to happen, as we pursue projects with very low odds of success.

As I recall there are five regions like Silicon Valley in the US. They all evolved around World Class Research institutions and private R&D facilities located in close proximity to each other; One feeding off the other and vice versa.

Additionally these leading edge research corridors were in the field of electronics and computers. That horse is out of the barn. Medicine, engineering also have their equivalent Silicon Valleys, but all are world class and are in larger cities than Bellingham. All took decades to build before the wisdom of their investments paid off.

Finally all of these institutions were in place decades before the explosion in the "digital era" really became the commercial explosion that it is.

Many communities have dreamed about recreating these spectacular economic drivers like Silicon Valley, and many have also tried and failed. Larger cities have tried, like Chicago, but for the most part all have failed as the five Silicon Valley areas in the US, have an insurmountable lead. What was the last region that actually intentionally recreated a Silicon Valley? It is the Research Triangle in North Carolina. For the most part in order to recreate this Silicon Valley in North Carolina, it took thirty years of subsidies.

To recreate Silicon Valley you need lots of nerds, and rich people looking for the next BIG consumer technology trend to invest in.

The nerds need to be nerds in science, not liberal arts. (Think UW Medical Center, Engineering, Computer science etc.)

Frankly, there also needs to be a relatively low tax environment, or the money goes to other locales, if it has the chance. (What is the sense in making a lot of money, if the government is going to take it?) What is killing Silicon Valley today is taxation and quality of life. Many are moving to Seattle but, many others are moving overseas to locations with low taxes, good communications, and living conditions, like Malta or example.

Seattle has a significant leg up on Whatcom County when it comes to the economics that created Silicon Valley. We are not going to catch up to Seattle no matter how hard we try, unless we pick a field of expertise that Seattle has not focused its resources on and obtained an insurmountable lead.

Maybe it is time to set our sights lower, and just get good at something we know the world will need in the future.

Remember people flocked to Silicon Valley because they were the undisputed world leaders in knowledge in several areas of science.

Name one area of science the Bellingham is a world leader of? Printing "World Class" on a brochure, don't make it so.

Newport just got NOAA. Who would have thought that their decision to become world leaders in oceanography would have paid off; Being respected by peers as having world class expertise in a specific area of science, helps a lot. Goes to the same reasons why research universities are such good economic drivers but garden variety public liberal arts colleges do not create the same benefits.

Not everyone can be a silicon valley. I have some ideas that I think would work long term, but I am out of time. I only get a half hour on the computer here in jail.