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How Silicon Valley Scientists and Engineers Got it Right, and VCs Got it Wrong

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Scientists and engineers as founders and startup CEOs is one of the least celebrated contributions of Silicon Valley.

It might be its most important.

ESL, the first company I worked for in Silicon Valley, was founded by a PhD in Math and six other scientists and engineers. Since it was my first job, I just took for granted that scientists and engineers started and ran companies. It took me a long time to realize that this was one of Silicon Valley's best contributions to innovation.

Cold War Spin Outs
In the 1950s, the groundwork for a culture and environment of entrepreneurship were taking shape on the east and west coasts of the United States. Each region had two of the finest research universities in the United States, Stanford and MIT, which were building on the technology breakthroughs of World War II and graduating a generation of engineers into a consumer and cold war economy that seemed limitless. Each region already had the beginnings of a high-tech culture, Boston with Raytheon, Silicon Valley with Hewlett Packard.

However, the majority of engineers graduating from these schools went to work in existing companies. But in the mid-1950s the culture around these two universities began to change.

Stanford - 1950s Innovation
At Stanford, Dean of Engineering/Provost Fred Terman wanted companies outside of the university to take Stanford's prototype microwave tubes and electronic intelligence systems and build production volumes for the military. While existing companies took some of the business, often it was a graduate student or professor who started a new company. The motivation in the mid-1950s for these new startups was a crisis - we were in the midst of the cold war, and the United States military and intelligence agencies were rearming as fast as they could.

Why It's "Silicon" Valley
In 1956 entrepreneurship as we know it would change forever. At the time it didn't appear earthshaking or momentous. Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, the first semiconductor company in the valley, set up shop in Mountain View. Fifteen months later eight of Shockley's employees (three physicists, an electrical engineer, an industrial engineer, a mechanical engineer, a metallurgist and a physical chemist) founded Fairchild Semiconductor. (Every chip company in Silicon Valley can trace their lineage from Fairchild.)

The history of Fairchild was one of applied experimentation. It wasn't pure research, but rather a culture of taking sufficient risks to get to market. It was learning, discovery, iteration and execution. The goal was commercial products, but as scientists and engineers the company's founders realized that at times the cost of experimentation was failure. And just as they don't punish failure in a research lab, they didn't fire scientists whose experiments didn't work. Instead the company built a culture where when you hit a wall, you backed up and tried a different path. (In 21st century parlance we say that innovation in the early semiconductor business was all about "pivoting" while aiming for salable products.)

The Fairchild approach would shape Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial ethos: In startups, failure was treated as experience (until you ran out of money.)

Scientists and Engineers as Founders
In the late 1950's Silicon Valley's first three IPO's were companies that were founded and run by scientists and engineers: Varian (founded by Stanford engineering professors and graduate students,) Hewlett Packard (founded by two Stanford engineering graduate students) and Ampex (founded by a mechanical/electrical engineer.) While this signaled that investments in technology companies could be very lucrative, both Shockley and Fairchild could only be funded through corporate partners - there was no venture capital industry. But by the early 1960′s the tidal wave of semiconductor startup spinouts from Fairchild would find a valley with a growing number of U.S. government backed venture firms and limited partnerships.

A wave of innovation was about to meet a pile of risk capital.

For the next two decades venture capital invested in things that ran on electrons: hardware, software and silicon. Yet the companies were anomalies in the big picture in the U.S. - there were almost no MBA's. In 1960s and '70s few MBA's would give up a lucrative career in management, finance or Wall Street to join a bunch of technical lunatics. So the engineers taught themselves how to become marketers, sales people and CEO's. And the venture capital community became comfortable in funding them.

Medical Researchers Get Entrepreneurial
In the 60s and 70s, while engineers were founding companies, medical researchers and academics were skeptical about the blurring of the lines between academia and commerce. This all changed in 1980 with the Genentech IPO.

In 1973, two scientists, Stanley Cohen at Stanford and Herbert Boyer at UCSF, discovered recombinant DNA, and Boyer went on to found Genentech. In 1980 Genentech became the first IPO of a venture funded biotech company. The fact that serious money could be made in companies investing in life sciences wasn't lost on other researchers and the venture capital community.

Over the next decade, medical graduate students saw their professors start companies, other professors saw their peers and entrepreneurial colleagues start companies, and VC's started calling on academics and researchers and speaking their language.

Scientists and Engineers = Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Yet when venture capital got involved they brought all the processes to administer existing companies they learned in business school - how to write a business plan, accounting, organizational behavior, managerial skills, marketing, operations, etc. This set up a conflict with the learning, discovery and experimentation style of the original valley founders.

Yet because of the Golden Rule, the VC's got to set how startups were built and managed (those who have the gold set the rules.)

Fifty years later we now know the engineers were right. Business plans are fine for large companies where there is an existing market, product and customers, but in a startup all of these elements are unknown and the process of discovering them is filled with rapidly changing assumptions.

Startups are not smaller versions of large companies. Large companies execute known business models. In the real world a startup is about the search for a business model or more accurately, startups are a temporary organization designed to search for a scalable and repeatable business model.

Yet for the last 40 years, while technical founders knew that no business plan survived first contact with customers, they lacked a management tool set for learning, discovery and experimentation.

Earlier this year we developed a class in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, (the entrepreneurship center at Stanford's School of Engineering), to provide scientists and engineers just those tools - how to think about all the parts of building a business, not just the product. The Stanford class introduced the first management tools for entrepreneurs built around the business model / customer development / agile development solution stack. (You can read about the class here.)

So what?

Starting this Thursday, scientists and engineers across the United States will once again set the rules.

Stay tuned for the next post.

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