How Scientists and Engineers Got It Right, and VCs Got It Wrong

7/25/11Follow @sgblank

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 Spinouts

In the 1950’s 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, including 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 1950’s 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 1950’s 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 1950s Silicon Valley’s first three IPOs 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 MBAs. In 1960s and ‘70s few MBAs 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 … Next Page »

Steve Blank is the co-author of The Startup Owner's Manual and author of the Four Steps to the Epiphany, which details his Customer Development process for minimizing risk and optimizing chances for startup success. A retired serial entrepreneur, Steve teaches at Stanford University Engineering School and at U.C. Berkeley's Haas Business School. He blogs at www.steveblank.com. Follow @sgblank

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