Can Silicon Valley Reinvent Itself in Green-Tech?


(T) Every year, around the month of February, I am looking forward to attending some of the events at the Entrepreneurship Week at Stanford University. Entrepreneurship Week gives an opportunity for the students to acquire the knowledge and the techniques to accomplish their dreams of starting a company. But for me, it is a way to discover what are the new technologies that students in engineering are found off. In particular, one of my favorite events is the career fair where many start-ups from one to a few employees are looking to hire. My first surprise, this year, was that the career fair had more than 60 companies, which is a remarkable number knowing the state of the economy. My second surprise was that there was NO Green-Tech start-up. However, they were a lot of social network start-ups providing new Facebook applications and widgets, virtualized desktop, video bookmarking…but NOT ONE Green-Tech start-up to my big disappointment!

As we all know, the present challenge for the future and survival of mankind is to reinvent his standard ways of living and to build future economic prosperity for a growing human population WITHOUT destroying anymore the vital resources of the very complex, subtle and delicate Earth’s ecosystems. Besides the obvious changes to the way that governments, businesses and consumers use, misuse and abuse the remaining available natural resources from Mother Nature, one of the keys to lower the human impact on the environment is the development and the adoption of Green Technologies.

Green Technologies not only need to replace existing technologies that are damaging the environment but as well to maintain or even to grow again the remaining natural resources. For over 40 years, Silicon Valley has imagined, created and marketed new High Technologies so one might think that Silicon Valley shall be the best place to imagine, create and market Green Technologies. With the lower growth and the maturity of the computing industry, it seems obvious that Silicon Valley shall fully take advantage of the huge opportunities and reinvent itself in Green-Tech?

But is the case? Let’s try to investigate it…

The Missing Pieces for a Green-Tech Silicon Valley

No Green Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center)

Most of the early fundamental innovations in computing were incubated at the Xerox PARC and all adopted by early start-ups but never by Xerox itself such as Object Oriented Programming with SmallTalk, Graphical User Interfaces that were later leveraged by the Macintosh team, Ethernet for local communication between computers and the list goes on…

Right now, there is no basic science research (as far as I know) in Silicon Valley for new Green Technologies – massive developments of creative ideas that will lead to a few major technology breakthroughs.

Berkeley and Stanford are not Generating MS and Ph.D. in Green Technologies

The top university programs in computer engineering in the US are Berkeley, Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and MIT. Both Berkeley and Stanford have top MS and Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science but not in green engineering and green science. To become the entrepreneurs of tomorrow, today students must learn about clean energy, clean transportation, green housing, biodiversity protection, water conservation, environmentally sound land and fish farming, emerging diseases due to climate change….and last but certainly not least green public policy!

Green Silicon Valley must be a Spin-Off from Green Stanford

HP, Sun, Silicon Graphics, Cisco, MIPS, Yahoo, Google, and many other companies have been started by Stanford faculty, staff or students. In some way, Silicon Valley is a spin-off from Stanford that has sparked, nurtured and fostered many ideas, researches, technologies and business models that led to many High-Tech start-ups, public companies, and industries. I do not see why not Stanford cannot play the same role in Green-Tech as it did in High-Tech.

Silicon Valley Cannot Leverage the US Leadership for Adopting Green Standards

The outstanding economic growth of the US has been fueled by improved productivity based on technology. The US has adopted in its economy all major computing technologies created or perfected in Silicon Valley such as semiconductors, PCs, software, networking and of course the Internet. But today, Ireland leads in wind power, Eastern Germany leads in solar power, France leads in nuclear power, Japan leads in hybrid cars…The US should not have rejected the Kyoto protocol and we must act in such a way that the US will provide political leadership to craft the new worldwide climate change treaty during the United Nations conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. It will be awkward for Silicon Valley to invest in Green-Tech if the US is not leading worldwide agreements in climate changes.

Silicon Valley has not yet any Green Rock Star!

Steve Jobs, Andy Groove, Larry Elison, Scott McNealy, Jim Clark, Marc Andreessen, and many others are well-known rock stars of the High-Tech industry. The question is not who is but who will become a rock star for the Green-Tech industry. Rock stars are important because they communicate with the public their passions for the industry and they are leaders that students want to imitate in realizing their dreams.

Silicon Valley High Cost of Living

Compared to the other technology centers in the US – Boston, Raleigh, Austin, Seatle, Denver – Silicon Valley is not the most attractive place to live.  The high cost of housing, increased taxes due to California’s budget deficit, state of the schools and lack of public transportation are now slowing down many great scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, marketers, teachers, and researchers to move to Silicon Valley. The sunny weather, the beauty of the outdoors, the radiance of San Francisco, a cosmopolite and socially opened population are not enough. Silicon Valley business model is built on attracting the best minds in the country and in the world. It must be an attractive place to live in order to be an attractive place to work.

The Present Assets for a Green-Tech Silicon Valley

Venture Capitalists have Funds Ready to be Invested in Green-Tech

Since the tech bubble, many venture capital firms have increased year after year their investments in Green-Tech. In the many tier one firms, more than half of the venture partners are now dedicated to Green-Tech investments and most of the very few funds that have been raised successfully recently were with the goal of seeding Green start-ups. It seems that money is easier to raise those days for Green-Tech entrepreneurs than High-Tech entrepreneurs.

Many High-Tech Workers have Already Moved to Green-Tech

Certainly more a minority than a majority, but many entrepreneurs, engineers, product managers mostly from failed dot.coms or telecommunication start-ups from the High-Tech industry have already taken new positions at newly funded and emerging Green-Tech start-ups. With many layoffs from large tech companies due to the credit crisis and scale down of many High-Tech start-ups, I would expect that trend to continue with either tech workers keeping their computing expertise and moving gradually to Green-Tech or tech workers turning a new page of their careers and moving completely to Green-Tech.

The Bay Area Got Stanford, Berkeley and Many Other Top Research and Education Centers

Again to become the driving forces for a better future, today students must learn the technologies of tomorrow. With Stanford and Berkeley worldwide faculty and researchers but as well many other local universities such as UC San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Davis, University of Santa Clara and San Jose State University, there is more than enough educational and research infrastructure to sustain the reinvention of Silicon Valley in Green-Tech.

Silicon Valley Business Model of Creating, Designing and Marketing is Perfect for Green-Tech Policies and Products:

Over the years, Silicon Valley public and private companies have developed a perfect business model where technologies and markets are researched and created in Silicon Valley, where products are designed and marketed in Silicon Valley but where product sales are spread all over the world close to the targeted markets and where product manufacturing is outsourced in multiple parts of the world to lower costs and increase scale.

That model should be a good fit to Green-Tech where solutions need to be architected globally for the entire planet (greenhouse gases affect every country) but tailored locally depending of the position of the country in the hemisphere, its proximity to the sea, its altitude and if the country is a developed or a developing country.

Silicon Valley is Still the Best Place from an Idea on the White Board to an IPO and a Worldwide Success

Start-ups must have the right team and the right product concept. If the product idea is right that is if there is demand for it, it can be done, there is a lack of suppliers and can lead to a profitable business model, then the road to becoming a “franchise” is all about execution. And, Silicon Valley has mastered over and over for the High-Tech industry how to move ideas and teams from the whiteboards to IPOs. The same principles apply to Green-Tech.

Silicon Valley is a Small United Nations

Every day that I get to work in my start-up, I have many conference calls in the morning with our European teams while late in the afternoon, the conference calls are with the Asian teams. However, if some of my co-workers are born in the Bay Area or from other US states, most of my co-workers are born overseas in Vietnam, China, Russia, India, Iran, Israel, the Philippines…Silicon Valley is the best lab for transnational solutions that are so critical for climate changes.

So Can Silicon Valley Reinvent Itself in Green-Tech?

Yes, of course! Silicon Valley has the creativity, the people, the ecosystems and the financing to be the engine of creation, growth, and adoption of Green Technologies whose successes or failures will determine mankind future. Out of the six present challenges of Silicon Valley to become Green that I mentioned, I can only foresee its high-cost of living as being a challenge.

And, I am looking forward to next year Week of Entrepreneurship at Stanford University to discover many Green-Tech start-ups.

Note 1: I dedicate this article to my Mom whose 75 birthdays is today, July 12, 2009.

Note 2: The picture above is one my flowers in my garden ready to blossom.

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