Uber and Carnegie Mellon and Pittsburgh

Richard Florida wrote series of tweets on the recent news that Uber as 'poached' around 40 senior researchers from Carnegie Mellon University. CM has a fantastic reputation in robotics and automation research and is one of the leaders of work on autonomous cars. Uber has made no secret of its interest in automated cars in order to disrupt the 'poor immigrants get a foothold in a new country' market'. The article he was responding to sees this as a problem: Uber has made no secret of its interest in being a leader in the self-driving car market and is throwing its sizeable resources into hiring the best minds in the business. The fact that they set up a research office in Pittsburgh is testament to how great CM is at this. The MarketWatch and WJS article views this as an attack on CM and that by stealing away their top researchers they've weakened the university's robotics program. The point that Florida was making is that there is no reason to see this as a threat. Indeed, that this is the entire point of university research!

Now, before we get going talking about this, I just want to make two points. One, the real market for disruption by self-driving vehicles is the trucking industry not the taxicab market. Two, is anyone else confused about why a gypsy taxi dispatch company is valued at 50 billion dollars?

But, let's put that aside for now. What made me interested in this topic is that I'm currently reading through Christophe Lécuyer's brilliant book on the history of Silicon Valley. It's no surprise that one of the reasons for the emergence of Silicon Valley as a technology cluster was the interaction between local tech entrepreneurs, defence contractors, and researchers at Stanford University.

Stanford was a leading research location for the self-driving cars of the 1950s: microwave radio tubes and klystrons. The highest of the high tech. Varian Associates was the Uber of the mid 1950s, an high-tech, engineer-led company near San Francisco that was beating the pants off of its competitors like RCA. Its secret was hiring physicists with a great theoretical understanding of the basic science and pairing them with the skilled trades people drawn from the region's burgeoning defence industry.

Key to their success were their close linkages with Stanford. These connections went far deeper than just drawing on the tech developed at the university, they hired graduate students and directly funded relevant research. In some cases Varian "relocated its engineering staff to Stanford to reinforce the firm's close connection with the university's research programs" (p. 110)

The same thing happened when in the development of the transistor and microprocessor. The main developer of this technology, William Shockley wanted to hire a Stanford professor onto his company but the professor declined as he was more interested in his academic research. But over the next few years they "reproduced Shockley's laboratory on campus. As a result, Standard was probably the first university to have the capability of making silicon diodes and transistors" (p, 138).

So, what does this have to do with CM and Uber? From the university's view Uber is a threat to their research. They've hired away 6 PIs and it sounds like 30 odd advanced post-doc or phD researchers, which is a huge deal. Those researchers are taking hundreds of person-years of experience out of the university. CM can try to replace those PIs, but even if the new hires are of the same caliber as those who have left it will take them years to get their own labs up and running.

From Uber's perspective this a great thing. By locating their research office in Pittsburgh they've gained access to knowledge spillovers from CM for years but now thanks to the *ahem* ambitious valuation of the company they're in a position to hire on these researchers and become *the* world leader in self-driving cars. From a regional economic development angle, this is great too. Uber's advantage in this industry will grow, helping them create even more high-skill, high-pay jobs.

But the history of Silicon Valley provides some useful insight into this. Lécuyer's history helps me understand something that isn't much talked about in academic research on the role of universities in economic growth. In order of importance, here is the contribution of universities to the economies of high-tech regions:

  1. Producing highly skilled students who go on to work at local companies
  2. Acting as a magnet to attract highly skilled researchers to the region who then go on to work at local companies
  3. Knowledge spillovers from university research to local firms
  4. Academic spinoffs and commercialization of university tech
  5. Students spending lots of money on beer before leaving
  6. Proceeds from sales of CDs from student a cappella groups
  7. Sports?

A University's role as a producer of skilled graduates and magnet to attract skilled workers is their most important role in supporting economic development. Other things like knowledge spillovers and spinouts are secondary at best.

So, on one hand Uber's hiring of CM researchers is great. CM has acted as a magnet for attracting the top autonomous robotics people in the world and Uber is able to take advantage of that.

But by hiring away the PIs, Uber might have killed the golden goose. PIs with large grants and labs are great training ground for new highly skilled researchers. They attract top PhD students and post-docs and help them become world leading engineers and researchers. It's hard to know what the role of these PIs will be within Uber, but if they're not publishing or applying for grants it will be hard to attract the world's best researchers.

In many ways, history tells us that it would be better for Uber to support the PIs within their university labs. Give out large, undirected grants and let the researchers do what they do best. Give them lots of money to bring in more researchers and then hire the best of the best. Encourage spinouts from the university by being a early-stage customer and acquire those with the best product.

So, Florida is right that we shouldn't see this as an attack on the university because this is exactly what should happen. Local companies should hire the best talent that's produced at a university which in turn helps the region develop a stronger knowledge-based economy. But we should also be concerned that by poaching PIs, Uber has reduced the capacity of CM to produce and attract the world's best researchers which at the end of the day does a disservice to them, Carnegie Mellon, and Pittsburgh as well.

How to measure entrepreneurial ecosystems

I love reading data-driven articles on entrepreneurial ecosystems, and Nick Beim's new article "The Rise and Future of The New York Startup Ecosystem" is no exception. What's unique about it is that is uses two measures, total amount of VC investment and exists about 500 million,  to compare ecosystems. Nick shows that while NYC's ecosystem might still be small by Silicon Valley terms, it's the same size as as Boston (if not bigger) despite the fact that NYC lacks a high profile research university like  MIT (Colombia stands in the corner of the room and looks at the floor in embarrassment; no one even notices NYU).

Both these metrics are nice because they give us real, comparable numbers. Comparing regions is always a difficult process because of a lack of good, comparable data that actually talks about entrepreneurship specifically.

However, there are some problems with these measures. VC isn't geographically neutral: venture capitalists tend to invest in firms near them (I could give you so many citations for this but just throw 'venture capital geography' into google scholar and go wild). So, places with more VC firms are likely to have more VC investments. This is called a 'Matthew Effect,' meaning that places with an already existing advantage continue to get that advantage at the expense of worse off places. So, places with lots of existing VC investment will attract more VC firms, leading to higher levels of investment. Now, this isn't deterministic: New York-based venture capital firms are increasingly investing in firms in Toronto and Ottawa. Two venture funds just put over 100 million into Ottawa's Shopify last year. Similarly, without this kind of financial backing, it's hard to get a $500 million + exit.

Because of this, there are maybe 5-10 cities in America where we'd expect to see enough venture capital invested to actually put the data in a spreadsheet and make a pretty graph with out resorting to logging everything.  But I think that there are more than 10 entrepreneurial ecosystems in America. We need to find better metrics that allow us to identify them in ways that go beyond VC investments and exist.

However, this means a lot more work on the part of researchers. It's easy to get VC data if you're willing to pay; it's much harder to figure out the contours of a regional culture or count how many mentors there are within a community. This requires a more in-depth, case study approach. I'm just beginning to think about how we can measure ecosystems in a way that gets at all these hidden factors but at the same time allows us to systematically compare different regions.

One last note: Nick's article is particularly nice because it actually mentions cost of living. Major ecosystems like NYC, Boston, and San Fran are having a cost-of-living crisis. It's going to become increasingly hard for entrepreneurs, especially young ones, to actually live and work in these places. How entrepreneurs support themselves prior to being bought by Facebook for 19 billion dollars is going to become an increasingly important question as time goes on.

Everywhere is an ecosystem

I hate analogies. To quote Britta Perry, "It's a thought.....with another thought's hat on it." Ot, as Ron Swanson said this week, "That's why my favorite book is Moby Dick: No froo foo symbolism, just a good simple tale about a Man who hates an animal" And yes, to answer your questions, I did not exactly excel in high school English classes. The biggest issue for me is when biological concepts are used as analogies for social or economic processes. When we borrow a basic concept from biology, like evolution, we also mentally import a lot of the scientific perspective on that concept that doesn't really apply to the social world. Evolution only occurs between generations, but evolutionary economics allows for change within firms during their lifetimes (who are the animal in this analogy). Yes we still think of firm evolution in terms of spinoffs and deaths. Should we be talking about Darwinian or Lamarkian evolutionary economics? What about Lysenkoisms?

I've been thinking a lot about the problems of analogies in the context of entrepreneurial ecosystems. The term ecosystem is decidedly biological. To quote the hive mind, an ecosystem is a:

community of living organisms...in conjunction with the non-living components of their environments...interacting as a system.

The entrepreneurial ecosystem is a combination of living (hopefully) actors like entrepreneurs, investors, and workers and non-living institutions like social networks, government polices and universities, that contribute to a vibrant entrepreneurial community. At its base, an ecosystem is a pretty good metaphor for what we're looking for, a biological ecosystem. An entrepreneurial ecosystem should be self-sustaining and depend on complex interactions between the various living and institutional components that reenforce and reproduce their functions.

However, the usefulness of the ecosystem concept starts to break down once we think about it a bit more. Much of the writing on entrepreneurial ecosystems are based on the question of how do we build ecosystems in new areas. How can policy makers and community leaders foster the institutions and people that will help build a strong ecosystem the likes of Silicon Valley, Waterloo, or New York City? This is based on the assumption that only a few communities have ecosystems, but we should all be working towards building them where ever possible.

There is where the analogy starts to fall away for me. In nature, everywhere has an ecosystem. There's not a place on the earth (from the atmosphere to deep sea trenches) which don't have some kind of ecosystem. Sometimes these are rich, vibrant, and sustainable ecosystems with lots of components, like those in a rain forest or savannah. Others are thin, with few components and resources, like a desert or the arctic. Some human-designed ecosystems, like those of a sorghum farm, could not exist without continual human intervention and involve a number of species (including bacteria) that you could count on two hands.

From this perspective, instead of saying we should build entrepreneurial ecosystems, we should instead recognize that all regional communities already have an ecosystem. Some of these ecosystems support the kind of high-growth, innovation-based entrepreneurship that we like to associate with successful regional economies. Others discourage entrepreneurship, either because there is no support infrastructure to help people start new ventures or there is a cultural discomfort towards the risks of entrepreneurship. In most cases I imagine, the ecosystem has no positive or negative influence on entrepreneurship, the ecosystem is simply neutral towards starting new firms.

A successful entrepreneurial ecosystem isn't created out of whole cloth: it requires the transformation of an already existing economic and social ecosystem within a region. While it's fun and interesting to read about success stories like San Francisco, Denver, or New York City, each region is fundamentally unique. You've got to look at what social, economic, and cultural resources already exist and how they contribute to how entrepreneurs are perceived. Only then can you start to build something new.

World Weary Waterloo Waits and Wonders: When Will RIM's Worries Wane?

First, apologies for the lack of posts here. Since the last post, I've moved my entire life to Edinburgh and started a new job in the University of Edinburgh Business School. I've started an experiment in using Tumblr to make short comments on interesting articles about culture, entrepreneurship. I'll eventually find some way to integrate the two. Second, thing are....um....not going well for Blackberry (ńee RIM). Losses of almost a billion dollars in the last quarter, reports of planned layoffs of 40% of the workforce, disappointment and delays on new products, this has not been a great week for the Beleaguered Smartphone Company©.

At this point, it seems likely that recovery is unlikely at best and that RIM (sorry, not calling it Blackberry) will cease to be an independent company at some point in the near future. This may take the form of a complete selloff to a private equity firm or someone in the smartphone industry or the spinoff and selling off of the remaining profitable areas (Blackberry OS, BBM and the cafeteria?).

The question for me, even on the other side of the Atlantic is: what does this mean for Waterloo's entrepreneurial ecosystem and culture? While the 4500 cut jobs will take place around the world, there's no debate that many, if not most, will be in Waterloo.  RIM, along with the University of Waterloo, are seen as the twin pillars of the region's entrepreneurial community.  The presence of a home grown startup that became a global force is a vital narrative in the community: it shows the possibilities of entrepreneurship and the potential rewards of leaving a stable job for the risks of starting your own company.

As I've said before, Ottawa after the collapse of Nortel is the easiest comparison, but I don't think Waterloo will suffer the same fate. After Notel began it's long decline, there was an initial exodus of skilled workers out of the region in search of other jobs. Other highly skilled engineers stayed in the region due to family ties or the fact that they actually liked living there (?!). These people looked for jobs where they could and turned to entrepreneurship, mostly as small time consultants, when they couldn't find a place in another big company or the government.

Waterloo can expect a different kind of exodus. It's proximity to Toronto (an hour on the 401) means that people can stay in Waterloo but become highway warriors and work in offices in Mississagua or Oakville. It's not a pleasant drive, but it's doable. Many major companies like Microsoft and Google already have large Toronto offices and will look to scoop up some of RIM's talented engineers. We're already seeing reports of smaller firms opening up Waterloo offices, I'm sure with the hope of picking up laid off cell phone engineers and programers as well. 

It's also likely that many of the region's economic development programs like Communitech, will try to help the recently laid off workers become entrepreneurs. The logic is seductive: take the experienced human capital of RIM workers, combine it with the social capital and experience of the region's talented entrepreneurial mentors, and help create new, high-tech businesses.

However, it's a mistake to see this as the Great Hope of economic recovery. RIM is an interesting beast: it's a major part of the discourse and legend of Entrepreneurial Waterloo (along with the Mennonites and the Germans), but the company itself seems to discourage entrepreneurship. I can only think of one spinoff from RIM, KIK Messenger, and RIM sued them! Similarly, very few people leave RIM and start their own firms. In my extensive interviews in the region, I only heard of one person who did so (the aforementioned KiK). This is to say that people who have been working at RIM may not want to be entrepreneurs. They want to be people who design high quality cell phones and messaging infrastructure that works a lot of the time, and leave the dirty work of actually running a company to someone else.

The same thing happened with Ottawa and the ex-Nortel workers. The dreams of seeing startups escape the bloated caucus of Nortel like so many baby spiders in a nature documentary never happened. But the region kept on promoting this kind of entrepreneurship without a second thought.

If Waterloo wants to make the best out of a bad situation, they need to figure out a way to help the soon-to-be laid off RIM workers. Entrepreneurship training is a big part of this, but it's not the only part. The community should be working to convince other high-tech companies to take advantage of this situation and open local offices to snatch them up. The local government needs to work with its provincial and federal counterparts to try to encourage Canadian firms in the region to expand their operations to take them on. Despite the region's celebration of entrepreneurship, it shouldn't see entrepreneurship as the only way forward.

Book Review: Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City

I just finished reading Startup Communities. It dovetails nicely with what I've been thinking about, that entrepreneurship relies on an entire community surrounding the entrepreneur. Here's my mini-review for all you busy business people: I agree with the first part of the title and disagree with the second part. I believe startup communities are vitally important, but I'm not sure you can build one in your community.

Let's start with the first point. Schumpter talked about the "Heroic Economic Superman" who boldly innovate, releasing the winds of creative destruction upon the world. However, the successful entrepreneur is not so much a Superman working in his Fortress of Solitude, but rather like Batman, a smart, skilled mortal who relies on a team for support (and is also likely deeply psychologically damaged). Entrepreneurs rely on their family and friends to not only slip them a few dollars when they need it, but also to  accept the fact that they'll miss holidays, birthdays, and everyday social events as the entrepreneur builds the business. They rely on employees willing to accept the lower pay and increased risk of working at a startup instead of a traditional company. They rely on customers taking on the risk of buying from a startup when they could often just stick with IBM or Sysco. They rely on suppliers to trust them enough to offer them credit or other kinds of support. They rely on local lawyers and accountants having the knowledge to advise them on challenges unique to small, growing firms.  Without these things, it is very hard for an entrepreneur to build a successful startup that does more than provide a decent income for themselves.

However, the promise of the book's subtitle is that you can build this kind of ecosystem in your community. I'm not so sure about this. I've looked at plenty of communities who try to jump start an entrepreneurial culture that ends in nothing more than a lot of breakfast meet-and-greets sponsored by the local economic development agencies. Ottawa springs to mind, where the local economic development agency has a laser-like focus on fostering an entrepreneurial community in the telecommunications market and has missed the fact that technology entrepreneurship there has now moved to software and social media. One entrepreneur there told me that:

OCRI [the local development organization] as an organization that has done this area a true disservice because it believes chips and wires and cables were going to come back.

But, Brad Field, the book's author, has seen this too. He specifically and rightly warns that this kind of environment has to be led by the entrepreneurs themselves. And I've seen some amazing people starting some amazing grass roots organizations to create entrepreneurial environments. In particular, Calgary has seen the formation of some great groups in the past year, like the A100 and Startup Calgary. However, they're butting up against an entrepreneurial culture based around the oil industry. This means that investors are used to investing in oil wells, not startups. I heard tales like this constantly during my fieldwork there:

See that [oil] hole over there? I’ll thrown $100,000 down that hole tomorrow on 24 hours analysis because I know I have the map, I know where, I know who the players are, I know generally speaking what the risk parameters are. But you tell me that this software guy with this platform that’s going to match up with this and that or this little black box is going to take the world by storm, how do I know that? I don’t know anything about it.

Similarly, it's hard to keep employees at a small tech startup when they all know that they could call up a friend at one of the big oil companies and be earning six-figures with 6 weeks of vacation tomorrow (I'm not kidding, the salaries there are mind blowing if you've got the right skills). Grassroots organizations can help increase the social prestige of tech entrepreneurship — which I found to be very low there — but I don't think that they can change the region's culture, which is far more focused on making money than making cool technology. Or if they can, it'll take years.

I'm not saying that it's impossible to build an entrepreneurial community; I firmly believe that there are options besides the Waterloo or Silicon Valley model of "start 50 years ago." However, I think it takes more than DemoCamps and Third Tuesday drink nights. However, I'd be lying if I told you I knew what that was.

Skype, Silver Lake, and fragile ecosystems

It looks like some evil things were done. Well, not that evil, but maybe some people who maybe deserved some money didn't get some money. Long story short, instead of paying employees with actual money — money that could be used to buy things — Skype granted them the option to buy the company's stocks. Stock options, if you will. Most startups have more potential than actual money. Stock options allow them to convert some of that future potential, the potential that they will eventually go public or be bought for hundreds of millions of dollars, for work today.  The company essentially gets to pay a worker less today and in exchange that worker gets the option to own a small fraction of the company, which they can in turn possibly sell for lots and lots of money, and become rich and buy mansions on warm, sandy beaches. Stock options are an essential part of the startup ecosystem. High-tech, growth-oriented startups don't exist in a vacuum. They depend on a veritable ecosystem or environment of other actors, institutions, norms and rule that help new firms get founded and existing firms grow. When one part of that ecosystem gets out of balance, it can destroy an entire eco-system.

What appears to have happened at Skype is that buried deep, deep, deep within the employees' contracts was a clause allowing the company to buy back those stocks, on demand, at their original price. Just before Microsoft finished acquiring the company, the company activated this clause, stripping many of their employees of millions of dollars worth of stock options. The details are not entirely clear at the moment, but it appears that this strategy was orchestrated by Silver Lake, a private equity company that had bought 65% of Skype for 1.9 billion dollars back in 2009 and has now just sold for 9 billion. This strategy means that Silver Lake's investment wasn't diluted by employee's stock options.

When these buyouts happen, employees maybe make a lot of money. Maybe some of these people quit their jobs to start their own company, financed through their stock earnings (Paypal got its start this way, so did Skype). Or maybe they use that money to become angel investors, investing in very early stage companies to help them get ready for growth. This helps perpetuate an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Successes produce more successes; the lucky ones become mentors and investors for new generations of entrepreneurs. When something like this whole Skype thing occur, it damages the ecosystem. I would imagine that things like this would make it much harder for small firms to attract the best people with stock options. There will be fewer angels and fewer entrepreneurial mentors.

Something very similar happened in Ottawa back in 2001 (Note, this discussion is coming from a chapter that I wrote in a forthcoming volume of Advances in the Study of Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Economic Development, so you know, run down to your local library and camp out there till it comes out). Ottawa of course used to be the center of Canada's tech boom. Not only did large firms proposer there, but so too did smaller, entrepreneurial ones. Their growth was fed by the presence of a well-oiled network of entrepreneurial angels. Angel investors financed the early growth of the firm, and venture capitalists (some from Ottawa, even more from outside Ottawa) came in to catalyze their growth even further.

When the dot com crisis happened, a lot of these small, venture financed firms nose-dived in a hurry. Many venture capitalists quickly engineered the fire sale of these companies, and thanks to the structure of the deal they kept most of the money. The original entrepreneurs and the early stage angel investors either lost money or at the very best broke even. This has devastated Ottawa's entrepreneurial ecosystem and a decade later it still has yet to recover. Angels either lost money or their investments are still tied up in stalling companies. Entrepreneurs who were expecting a a big payout to either help them start a new firm or invest in others came away with nothing.

Here's what one angel investor in Ottawa told me:


The angel community in town, the word I could use to describe it is tired. There’s a lot of angels that made lots of investments over the last 10 or 15 years, not a lot of it is paid back yet. A lot of those investments still look really good but they’re still investments, not returns. So there’s a lot of people waiting on the sidelines now saying ‘I’ve put a lot of money into this and I’m going to wait until I get some return before I jump back into the pool.’ (Interview O125)

Three things happened in Ottawa. One, current angels lost their money and pulled back on future investments. Two, a new generation of angels were effectively nipped in the bud and never really developed. Three, and most importantly, the new generation of entrepreneurs lost trust in venture capitalists. I can't even count how many times I heard the phrase "vulture capitalist." They refuse to even consider talking to venture capitalists. In turn, this slows their growth substantially and reduces the chances that they'll be acquired, which in turn means that even fewer of them will be able to act as angels and investors for future entrepreneurs.

All of this is to say that entrepreneurial ecosystems are very fragile. Acts like using an obscure clause to claw back stock options at one company can reverberate for years. Now do I think that this one act will destroy the amazing ecosystem that is the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial scene? No. But I do think that for the next few years, employees will be less willing to accept stock options and demand more pay. This hurts the growth potential of very small firms, and may start a cycle the turns into something bigger.

The takeaway from this is that it's not just about the entrepreneurs. When talking about how to foster entrepreneurship and firm formation on a region, we also need to think about the employees who will sacrifice pay and stability to work at a startup. We need to think about the angels who provide them with early stage capital, and the venture capitalists who help them take it to the next level. These actors and more act in a complex economic and social network. This network is far easier to disrupt than it is to build.