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

 
 

The latest Houston innovation news includes a name for the burgeoning Texas A&M University campus in the Texas Medical Center. Photo courtesy of TAMU

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks. From a Texas university naming its burgeoning new campus to a Houston SaaS startup with fresh funds, here are some short stories in Houston innovation.

ThoughtTrace raises $10M series B

ThoughtTrace has received investment from Chevron Technology Ventures. Photo via thoughttrace.com

ThoughtTrace Inc., a Houston-based software-as-a-service startup closed a $10 million series B round led by Canadian venture capital fund McRock Capital with contribution from Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures.

"Chevron Technology Ventures (CTV) pursues externally-developed technologies and new business solutions that have the potential to enhance the way Chevron produces and delivers affordable, reliable and ever-cleaner energy," says Barbara Burger, president of CTV, in a release. "ThoughtTrace fits that mandate with the potential to automate the complex, time-consuming, and document-intensive workflows required for our ongoing business operations."

ThoughtTrace's software quickly analyzes documents and contracts and produces results at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional methods. With the fundraising deal, Scott MacDonald, McRock's co-founder and managing partner, will join ThoughtTrace's Board of Directors.

"We are extraordinarily excited to have both McRock and Chevron join the team. McRock brings a great background in the industrial space, which we see as a great fit. In the case of Chevron, they went from being a new customer in 2019 to an investor in 2020," says Nick Vandivere, ThoughtTrace CEO, in a release.

"With the new capital raise, ThoughtTrace will accelerate its investment in creating AI with unparalleled speed and accuracy, grow strategic partnerships and platform integrations, and add to its existing team of talented professionals, all of which will bring further value to the growing ThoughtTrace customer-base," Vandivere continues.

Texas A&M names its Texas Medical Center campus

The new campus will be called Texas A&M Innovation Plaza. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University System

After announcing its plans for a $546 million medical complex in Houston's Texas Medical Center in February, Texas A&M University has released the name of the 5-acre campus rising at the intersection of Holcombe Boulevard and Main Street: Texas A&M Innovation Plaza.

The project will be completed in phases. The first phase, which will open later this year, is a renovation of an 18-floor building at 1020 Holcombe Blvd., which will to be the new home for EnMed, a dual degree program that produces both a master's in engineering and a medical degree.

"EnMed is just the first example of innovation that Texas A&M System intends to bring to the Texas A&M Innovation Plaza," says Chancellor John Sharp in a news release. "We are excited to have such a visible location in the Texas Medical Center."

Rice Business Plan Competition lays out virtual plans

The competition must go on. Photo via rbpc.rice.edu

This year's Rice Business Plan Competition, which was planned for March 26 to 28, was canceled due to COVID-19, but the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has decided to offer up an alternative: A virtual RBPC. Forty two student teams will compete over three virtual events.

  • Elevator Pitch Competition on June 17 (Open to the public): Each team will deliver 60-second pitches.
  • Round 1 on June 18 (Open to startups and judges only ): Each team will deliver 10-minutes to pitch to a panel of judges followed by Q&A.
  • Live finals on June 19 (open to the public): The seven finalists will pitch to the judges, and following a round of questions from judges, the winners and prizes will be announced.

Two health care educational institutions team up for new program

Xavier University and Baylor College of Medicine have launched a collaborative medical track. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Louisiana's Xavier University and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston have joined forces to allow Xavier students a smooth transition into Baylor's graduate programs. Xavier students, including traditionally underrepresented minorities — according to a press release — will have the opportunity to apply for the program in November. Three students will be selected for the program, which facilitates acceptance into the medical school.

"Our commitment at Baylor College of Medicine to diversity and inclusion creates the best environment for success across our mission areas of healthcare, research, education and community outreach," says Dr. Paul Klotman, president, CEO and executive dean of Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. "This important collaboration with Xavier University will strengthen this commitment, and I look forward to welcoming students from this new partnership into the Baylor family."

Klotman continues to express how inclusiveness is a priority for BCM and for this partnership.

"We live in a world where healthcare is changing and evolving," says Dr. Anne McCall, provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs at Xavier, in the release. "This partnership will further equip our students with the diverse tools and training that they'll need to foster equity in the medical field and compete on an international level."

University of Houston begins offering virtual tours for perspective students

Potential UH Cougars can get the 411 on campus via a virtual tour tool. Photo via uh.edu

Before COVID-19 sent everyone home and canceled gatherings, classes, and events across the world, the University of Houston was already working on a way for potential students to tour and learn more about the campus. Now, in light of the pandemic, UH has released this virtual tour offering complete with live interaction from UH student ambassadors.

"I'm really excited about the live component we just added because prospective students can ask questions just like during a face-to-face campus tour and that interaction is invaluable," says Mardell Maxwell, executive director of UH Admissions, in a release. "UH is so committed to access, and we see this as a great opportunity not only for students in Houston and Texas, but for those coming from out of state. We are opening up access to campus across the world."

Anyone can sign up for a tour online through the university's website.

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