Thursday, 5 September 2013

California dreamin'

I can visit the east coast of the US every month without too much of a strain on my circadian rhythm, but I’ve learned to pack in as many visits as possible on the west coast. Last month I had the pleasure of catching up with old friends and meeting new people in the San Francisco Bay area. It is no doubt a great place for science, with commercial enterprise operating in a rich academic environment: UC Davis, with its agricultural science programme broadening into all life sciences; UC Berkeley, with its sublime blend of maths, statistics and molecular biology; UCSF’s new medical campus, with new and established PIs in molecular biology, development and medicine; the technology powerhouse of Stanford, right in the middle of Silicon Valley; the chilled UC Santa Cruz, with its world-leading computational biology; and the innovative, energy- focused Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Joint Genome Institute.
A beach at Half Moon Bay, between Santa Cruz and San Fran
It was really fun. Many thanks to my numerous hosts who were engaging, hospitable and took time out for me.
The Bay area is perhaps best known for its high-profile tech industry. Google, Facebook and Apple are within 20 minutes of one other, and a decade or two ago other household names prevailed here: Oracle, HP, Xerox Park. In biotech the big successes here have been Amgen, Genentech and countless smaller companies. It’s no surprise that many governments yearn to replicate this jewel of a knowledge-based economy on their own soil.
What makes it work?
The Bay area is a recurring topic in many a strategic meeting with a strong “economic” bent – which country or region does not want a “technology hub” like Silicon Valley? Aspects most commonly cited are the entrepreneurial culture, the academic/industry interface, the relaxed, “outdoorsy” culture and the sunny climate (for those who have, clearly, not spent much time in SF itself). The excellent academic environment is usually an afterthought (e.g. “and of course Stanford is also there…”) if it is mentioned at all. It’s almost as though the academic institutes had moved there to benefit from the tech culture, rather than the reverse.
The main reason the Bay Area has been so successful is that it has well-established academic institutes with depth of expertise and a diversity of styles. Stanford might be the most influential, but its reputation is only made stronger by having so many high-performing neighbours. Academic institutes are a crucial component of a knowledge-based economy, and provide assets without which innovation would founder.
If you took away the academic institutions around the Bay area I am sure you wouldn’t notice it at first – the technology culture in the private sector in the area has a lot of momentum. But I am sure it would slowly change and atrophy without these institutions. Rather than asking what makes Silicon Valley work now, we should ask how it got started – and the academic institutions are a big part of that answer.
1. Serendipity
Academic institutes are the generators of deep innovation. Fundamental technology components are discovered in academia, often serendipitously. One needs a sharp mind, a good nose and basic funding to create transformative components. Angel investors and venture capitalists might back a good idea with money if they think it will have a good ROI, but the (deep) ideas come from scientists and engineers supported in a basic research environment.
2. Talent
A steady stream of highly qualified masters and graduate students flows from universities to technology companies: programmers, technicians, statisticians, engineers, optics and robotics specialists… you name it. No one can really plan what precise technology skills one is going to need four or five years ahead, but with a focus on core scientific and technical expertise, the Bay area has nearly everything it needs for success story five year's in the future.
3. Safety net
Everyone wants to be reasonably assured that their life is going to work out well enough – particularly if they have a family. The Bay area has a “safety net” of skilled scientific employment, so if things don’t work out at one venture there are opportunities elsewhere that won’t require a big move. People might be more wiling to join a small start up for low pay (but potentially high reward) if it’s set near a large concentration of technology firms – if it fails, there will be someone else wanting to employ you, even if it is a quite esoteric type of technology you are into. This is a practical and important layer of security. Underlying this layer is the pool of opportunities in academia, which, though less well paid, are more abundant and diverse in a place with many top-tier universities.
4. No ‘groupthink’
Each of the academic institutes in the Bay area has a distinct mission, set of drivers and working style; collectively, they interact to create antibodies to groupthink. If Stanford were the only university in the place, everyone would start working and thinking along the same lines and everything would become … monocultured, if not a bit boring. As it is, good people often hop between institutes during their career, and in doing so help transfer ideas and working styles between places.

There can be more than one
I’ve heard it said that the configuration of geography, academic institutions and can-do attitude in the Bay area is a once-on-this-planet phenomena.
Phooey to that!
The creativity of scientists and inventiveness of engineers is a universal phenomenon. Boston scientists might be colder, Cambridge/Oxford scientists more oddly attired (occasionally), Heidelberg scientists more prone to having a Oettinger after a long day in the lab… but the sense of fun and challenge in science is a constant between them all.
Top-tier universities in inspiring locations? We’ve got that.
Europeans tend to underestimate the cluster effect on their own doorsteps. The Bay area is big: about one hours’ drive in any direction between institutions and two hour's edge to edge. Kind of like… the distance between Cambridge, Oxford and University College London? Or perhaps between the academic institutes of Heidelberg, Frieburg and Stuttgart – or of Freiburg, Basel and Zurich – or of Paris, Lille, Brussels and Ghent?
Europe has more than its fair share of high-performing, top-tier academic institutes in gorgeous and inspiring locations with good food and facilities. But we need to back that excellence with funds to explore, create and innovate.
There is no secret sauce.
There is a distinctive northern Californian vibe about private industry: for example, a person in academia there is far more likely to have a direct relationship with someone in a start up. Because of the density, even those without a direct connection are bound to have a classmate, friend or neighbour in the tech/biotech industry. But I feel this easy academic/commercial interface is both a cause and consequence of the sheer concentration of academia and industry in the area.
Whatever is holding back the growth of knowledge industries in other parts of the world, the solution is not going to be some kind of secret sauce made only in the Bay area. Rather, it’s the critical depth you achieve when all the right components come together. Perhaps the old guard in Europe felt that academia and industry should be kept separate, and perhaps some of that feeling remains. But this sentiment is quickly (and rightly) fading.
Excellence first
Europe lags well behind the US in public funding for research, but is ostensibly trying to turn that around (see Money is not the only aspect of this, but the concentration on excellence and a diversity of research goals can get lost when people want to justify funding on the basis of final commercial activity. Of course they need to take care of commercial needs (technology-focused angel investors and venture capitalists, incubator space, start-up support), but it is equally important to foster growth and partnerships in academic institutions. Without a good mix of well-supported, science and technology-focussed institutions with distinctive drivers, and an environment that encourages scientists and engineers to have fun with technology, you won’t get very far.
Maximising the chance of generating a truly creative idea should be your first goal. It’s probably just as important to get simple things right (e.g. public transport between universities, so that a couple can easily find work) as it is to guess which area of technology will have the best return. And of course, funding excellent science goes hand in hand with supporting excellent science infrastructure.
From that core of excellence, over the years you will get a steady stream of ideas flowing. Many will fail, some will work, some will absolutely shine. More importantly, there will be a group of people wanting to work in science and technology, happy to take risks because they know that they have options.

Creating that fertile environment for nurturing ideas, start-ups and future Googles, Facebooks or Genentechs is not outside of our reach in Europe. I loved San Francisco and everything the Bay area had to offer, but I see it as more of an example to learn from than a Neverland to escape to. I don’t think Europe is too far off from achieving something like the critical mass of tech-awesomeness in the Bay Area. Indeed, I know people would argue it's well underway around Cambridge UK, or Basel, or Paris (to pick three). 

We don’t have to be Californian to catch the technology waves of the future.