I have been frustrated for some time with the high level of “noise-hype” in Silicon Valley about social media and the so-called ”disruptive technology” start-ups. The noise has abated a little – but only a little – since the Facebook IPO debacle. Yet one still opens the Business Section of the San Jose Mercury News to find one story or another of “wunderkinden,” aged 25 or less, unleashing “earth-shaking” startups with enormous growth prospects and stratospheric potential valuations. And this phenomenon is not limited only to the local press. The New York Times seems to have a similar tendency to regularly “feature” such up-and-coming high tech companies.
To be fair, I acknowledge that I tend to be somewhat “old school” and am therefore struggling to be “in the flow” with the social media revolution. I am, however, starting to appreciate social media’s significance as a powerful vehicle for communication, marketing and connectivity, as well as the remarkable flexibility represented by interlinking technologies such as cloud computing being implemented by many of the companies with which I am involved. I certainly do not want to discourage any entrepreneurial efforts, as they are the life-blood both of the young and of our economy.
But I am concerned by a seeming lack of balance. Our world’s population is growing at a frightening pace. We need an injection of innovation to produce enough food, clean water, energy and health services to survive. These industries require entrepreneurship just as much as do our pure-play high tech efforts. I want to see as much enthusiasm about starting (and financing!) a new solar photovoltaic cell concept or a novel targeted disease therapy as I want to see another clever App – maybe even more, especially when it comes to game Apps. Our young university graduates must be encouraged to deploy their creative juices in new ventures in the engineering and science-based industries in spite of the fact that they will take years to develop and millions of dollars to commercialize. The motivation should be to make a significant impact in the world, not merely near-term financial gratification.
This is one reason that I have agreed to put together an entrepreneurship course with biotech executive Howie Rosen for this Fall at Stanford University. The course will focus on capital-intensive, long-development/lead-time industries with high intellectual property content, such as biotech, bio-engineering, material science and energy. It will be offered to senior and graduate level Engineering students and to participants in the Stanford Center for Professional Development. It is intended to complement the many excellent “high tech” courses that Stanford offers in both the Engineering and Business Schools.
The need for innovation in the “hard but essential” industries has come home very clearly to me during these last few weeks. I had the privilege to serve as a mentor to an outstanding and inspirational group of Third World entrepreneurs in the 10th Anniversary Class of the Santa Clara University Global Social Benefit Incubator (GSBI.) I wrote about this critical initiative in my August 26, 2011 post titled “The Pleasure of Combining Entrepreneurial Experience with Social Impact.” The current cohort of 20 entrepreneurs comes from a broad range of nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. They serve the poorest four billion citizens of this earth, the “Base of the Pyramid.” Their initiatives are characterized by a deep social purpose coupled with a drive to be self-sustaining and scalable. They spent nine months in an often grueling qualifying effort to be considered for the in-residence program just completed a few weeks ago. Once the cohort has been reduced from 180 applicants to 20 winners (a process that takes about four months), each winner is paired with two Silicon Valley executives who serve as mentors. Mentors and social entrepreneurs are then engaged in a series of tasks to build and refine their business plans. The effort culminates in a two-week, in-residence boot camp comprised of classes and working sessions that produce a business plan good enough to pitch to potential investors. The description of the “Class of 2012” makes for inspiring reading.
What struck me about this year’s group is that innovation does not pertain only to new products. Some does, to be sure, in particular as designs are tailored to the true needs of the local customer base, needs which are seldom met by our more advanced and complex products in the developed world. But more impressive to me was to see the innovations in other aspects of the product life cycle, such as in creative distribution approaches to serve the market. This is especially important in the very difficult last mile, where our social entrepreneurs labor under political and logistical circumstances that would challenge the best among us!
So I want to encourage our eager young university students, when they consider their careers, to tackle the exciting and essential initiatives needed to create potable water, clean energy, plentiful food and better health care for this world. And if the entrepreneurial spirit calls, take the plunge – even if the journey to success takes years, not just months, and requires Malcolm Gladwell’s ”10,000 hours”, not just a flash of an idea and a quick 12-month development cycle. (See my Dec 1, 2010 post “Are Your Start-up Ideas Good Enough?)