Houston Voices

Siliconned: Leaving Silicon Valley for universities

Tech startups are leaving Silicon Valley in droves — and some are finding benefits in heading back to school. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Silicon Valley has been a tech startup paradise for decades. It has been described as the modern day Florence in the Renaissance. Tech gods from Apple and Google to Facebook and Twitter were born here. We can credit Silicon Valley as the birthplace for such world-changing innovations like smartphones, microprocessor chips, Tesla automation, and WIFI-enabled teapots.

Okay, so maybe that last one isn't changing the world, but it was created in the Valley and it's changed my life, for whatever that's worth. If Silicon Valley were a country, it would have the 19th-biggest economy on the planet. There's no doubt it is an engineer's dream. A techie's haven. A capitalist's utopia. A beacon of the modern world.

Or at least, it used to be.

Now leaving the Bay Area

There is an exodus in Silicon Valley. It's been happening for about three years. For instance, according to a 2018 poll conducted by the Bay Area Council, 46 percent of survey takers admit they plan to leave the Bay Area in the next year. Couple that with the fact that Silicon Valley investors have allocated 66 percent of their funds into startups outside of Silicon Valley, compared with 50 percent just six years ago, and you have a recipe for a great exodus to other markets around the country.

Now, just for kicks, add to all of this that the Kauffman Foundation's research has pegged Miami-Fort Lauderdale as the number one city in America for startup activity. Where does Silicon Valley's Bay Area, formerly the world's preeminent hub for tech startups, rank? Fourteenth. How the mighty have fallen.

So, to what exactly can this mass egress be attributed?

Insufficient funds

The biggest reason is cost.

The cost of living in the Bay Area is one of the steepest on the planet. Startups in the Valley pay four times what they would in any other city in the country. In fact, just last year the California Association of Realtors reported that a typical family in San Francisco has to make over $300,000 a year in order to afford a median-priced house tagged at just over a million dollars. That includes a 20 percent down payment and an $8,000 monthly payment. Because most of the startups in Silicon Valley are in their infancies, the engineers, programmers, and non-technical employees don't get compensated enough to afford such a living. As a result, they are leaving the Bay Area in droves for places where the cost of living is manageable.

One location that tech startup entrepreneurs are flocking to is the university. Universities are also retaining tech wunderkinds on campus to blossom their startups, rather than seeing them leave for the microprocessor motherland known as Silicon Valley.

Now entering university life

One of the biggest reasons universities have become hotbeds for tech startups is that campuses provide a means for people with multidisciplinary backgrounds to intermingle within the same space. A chemical engineering student with a great idea might meet an MBA during a startup launch party. Together they can build and market the second iteration of "Secret Stuff" from Space Jam, or whatever that student has in mind.

The point is that universities position aspiring entrepreneurs to network with the right people for building their company from the ground up. Even the Innovation Leadership Forum attests that innovation is born when different ways of thinking clash. That is precisely what happens on campuses every day.

Furthermore, college students also have more room to take risks. Most aspiring entrepreneurs in college between 18 and 25 are not married, do not have kids, mortgages, or any other major financial responsibilities. This allows them to have the luxury of leeway when it comes to experimenting and trial and error.

The ecosystem of innovation

In essence, academic incubators are courting tech entrepreneurs because universities offer an ecosystem designed to support and grow startups from conception to commercialization. This ecosystem includes a space where researchers, faculty, and students of all disciplines interact and form working relationships. In many cases, it also includes university owned equipment and laboratories for use by startup researchers.

There is, of course, incentive for universities to concentrate so many resources to building incubators and luring startup entrepreneurs. There is an inherent sense of responsibility that universities have to create an academic climate that encourages students to explore new ideas. A sense of responsibility that encourages them to take more risks; to be fearless in their quest to use their intellect to enrich lives; to dream.

Moreover, university incubators also position schools as progressive institutions. Such positioning attracts elite researchers and enhances a university's reputation. Further, these incubators forge a bridge that links industry and academia in a way that Silicon Valley does not. That's because with academic incubators, startups are a stone's throw away from a place teeming with researchers, scientists, hungry students, and aspiring entrepreneurs: the university campus.

Consequently, it is no wonder that tech startups are leaving Silicon Valley for universities. It's also no surprise that students who have graduated are staying with their university's incubators to develop their companies. There, they have a place that cultivates innovation, encourages risk-taking, and is set up specifically to help them bring their tech to the world. In short, the university has become a hub set up to be conducive to thriving tech startups. And tech entrepreneurs have noticed.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

Last month was National Diabetes Awareness Month and Houston-based JDRF Southern
Texas Chapter has some examples of how technology is helping people with type 1 diabetes. Photo courtesy of JDRF

Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is an autoimmune disease where insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas are mistakenly destroyed by the body's immune system. Insulin is vital in controlling blood-sugar or glucose levels. Not only do you need proper blood-sugar levels for day-to-day energy, but when blood-sugar levels get too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia), it can cause serious problems and even death. Because of this, those with T1D are dependent on injections or pumps to survive.

The causes of T1D are not fully known, and there is currently no cure; however, advancing technologies are making it easier to live with T1D.

Monitoring

Those who have had T1D for decades might recall having to pee into a vial and test reagent strips in order to check their blood-sugar levels. Thankfully, this evolved into glucometers, or glucose meters. With a glucometer, those with T1D prick their finger and place a drop on the edge of the test strip, which is connected to the monitor that displays their results. Nowadays, glucometers, much like most T1D tech, can be Bluetooth enabled and sync with a smartphone.

From there, scientists have developed the continuous glucose monitor (CGM) so that those with T1D can monitor their blood sugar 24/7. All you need to do is insert a small sensor under the skin. The sensor then measures glucose levels every few minutes, and that information can then be transmitted to smartphones, computers and even smart watches.

Monitoring blood-sugar levels is vital for those with T1D, particularly because it helps them stay more aware of their body, know what to do and even what to expect, but they also have to actively control those levels by injecting insulin. Think of a monitor as the "check engine" light. It can tell you that there may be a problem, but it won't fix it for you. To fix it, you would need an injection or a pump.

Pumps and artificial pancreas

The development of insulin pumps has made a huge impact on the lives of those with T1D and parents of children with T1D by making it easier to manage their blood-sugar levels. 50 years ago, the prototype of the insulin pump was so large, it had to be a backpack, but with today's technology, it is about the size of a smartphone. The pump is worn on the outside of the body, and it delivers insulin through a tube which is placed under the skin. Insulin pumps mimic the way a pancreas works by sending out small doses of insulin that are short acting. A pump can also be manipulated depending on each person's needs. For example, you can press a button to deliver a dose with meals and snacks, you can remove it or reduce it when active and it can be programmed to deliver more at certain times or suspend delivery if necessary.

One of the most recent and trending developments in T1D research is the artificial pancreas, or more formally referred to as the automated insulin delivery (AID) systems. Essentially, the artificial pancreas is an insulin pump that works with a CGM. The CGM notifies the insulin pump of your blood-sugar reading, which acts accordingly to restore your blood sugar to the target level. The artificial pancreas allows those with T1D to be even more hands off, as it does essentially everything: It continuously monitors blood-sugar levels, calculates how much insulin you would need, which can be done through smart devices, and automatically delivers insulin through the pump.

Living with T1D is a 24/7/365 battle; however, the advances in technology make it easier and safer to live with the disease. Organizations like JDRF play a huge role in investing in research, advocating for government support and more.

November was National Diabetes Awareness Month, and this year is particularly special for JDRF, as it is the 50th year of the organization. JDRF was founded in 1970 by two moms. The community grew to include scientists, lobbyists, celebrities and children—all determined to improve lives and find cures.

Bound by a will stronger than the disease, this year during National Diabetes Awareness Month (NDAM), JDRF celebrates "The Power of Us." We are reflecting on the power of our community and reminding ourselves and the public of how far we've come in the fight against T1D.


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Rick Byrd is the executive director of the JDRF Southern Texas Chapter.

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