There’s always a lot of talk in Pittsburgh blogosphere (and elsewhere) about the need to develop a Burgh start-up culture, with ample capital and a high tolerance for risk, as the way to economic revitalization. While I agree with the need for start-ups, I’ve always felt that the discussion seems to emphasize too heavily the need for small startups, while ignoring the role of large, not-necessarily-homegrown corporations in seeding the talent for the start-ups in the first place. So I was intrigued by today’s New York Times article: Seattle Taps Its Inner Silicon Valley, about the rise of a start-up culture, or rather, a spin-off culture, in Seattle. In addition to the usual notions about developing a mobile work culture where failure is seen as “a badge of honor, not shame,” the article contains these interesting quotes:
Microsoft offshoots, sometimes called Baby Bills, after Bill Gates of Microsoft, are being joined by Amazon progeny called Baby Jeffs, for Amazon’s Jeffrey P. Bezos. Baby Sergeys — those formed by veterans of Google, which is based in Mountain View, Calif., and was co-founded by Sergey Brin — are opening here, too, ….
“Now tons of companies are spinning off people,” said Ed Lazowska, a computer scientist who holds the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair at the University of Washington. Veterans from Amazon, Microsoft, RealNetworks and other established companies are leaving to form start-ups and venture funds, he said. “We’re finally at the stage of becoming a perpetual-motion machine.”
People often ask why Pittsburgh, with it’s great universities, isn’t seeding more startups. Maybe it’s because an essential missing component is a large pool of large tech companies to employ university engineers and scientists after graduation, until the stars align properly for them to start their own ventures.
Big, well established companies play a big role in seeding the talent need to create startups. Before it was called Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay area was already home to big defense contractors who employed lots of engineers. Boston has for 300 years been a center of not just intellectual activity, but also commerce. Austin, in addition to Dell and National Instruments, has such non-local tech players as IBM, Intel, Freescale, Sun, Apple, Samsung, and many others.
In addition to providing jobs to local tech grads, these companies also recruit (inter-)nationally drawing to their cities engineers and scientists from around the country and world. Such recruiting counters the natural forces that cause a large fraction of local grads from any university to take employment in some other city.
Recently Mike Madison at Pittsblog asked who are the up-and-coming startups in Pittsburgh, and got some answers. I have a different question: What established technology companies are here that can attract and retain the pool of talent needed to seed a spin-off culture?
Update: Several companies have been suggested in the comments. I’ve collected them into a list in a separate post, along with my thoughts about the qualities an established company should have to fit into a spin-off culture.