The Valley of My Dreams: Why Silicon Valley Left Boston's Route 128 In The Dust

Global networkNo one disputes that Silicon Valley is the global capital of the tech world. But this wasn’t always so. It is the Valley’s dynamism and networks which have given it an unassailable advantage. Silicon Valley has simply left rivals like Boston’s Route 128 in the dust.

I mentioned a little bit about my first Columbus Day in California in a previous column. But I didn’t tell you the whole story. I was invited to three amazing events on the night of October 12. Venture capital firm Alsop-Louie—known as one of the wackier and unconventional VC firms—invited me to their legendary Columbus Day party. On that same evening I had an invite from Henry Chesbrough, Executive Director of the Center for Open Innovation at the University of California-Berkeley to attend a dinner party for his forum. Down in Silicon Valley I also had an invite to speak at an event with India’s former Minister of Disinvestment, Arun Shorie—the guy who was once in charge of privatizing the country’s moribund nationalized firms and who is as close as you can get to financial royalty in India.

It was a really hard decision which one to pick. And I found myself wondering, where else in the world would I have to face such a decision? The answer is nowhere. Silicon Valley, which has expanded to embrace the entire Bay Area as an engine of entrepreneurship and innovation, is a unique place of powerful and concurrent overlapping networks. As a new arrival to Silicon Valley and San Francisco, I had read about this and did believe it. But it was hard to understand to what degree these types of concentric circles of connections were pervasive in the Valley. I am now studying how some of these networks develop and their influence on success rates in entrepreneurship.

I am focusing on what is possibly the largest of these networks, an organization called The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE). This started as an Indian network and served as a mechanism for those from the Subcontinent to help each other. Silicon Valley is the birthplace of TiE and remains its stronghold. But at the latest TiE Global Conference, held in Silicon Valley a few weeks ago, an interesting debate broke out among the Board of Directors. While the organization remained largely Indian in composition, a significant number of non-Indians had joined TiE and become very active members (some had risen to the role of chapter president). Some members of the board thought it was time to change the name of TiE from The Indus Entrepreneurs to The International Entrepreneurs. They eventually agreed to drop the “Indus” from the name and to just call the organization TiE. The fact that such a debate even took place illustrates both the power of networks to embrace outsiders and draw them in, as well as the power of these networks, when unconstrained by convention or conservative establishment rules, to grow in unexpected ways. It’s a metaphor for Silicon Valley.

Which brings me to Boston. Ever heard of Route 128? To my surprise, neither have any of my students at Duke or the entrepreneurs I’ve met in Silicon Valley. I’m surprised because it wasn’t so long ago that Silicon Valley was considered a poor cousin of Boston’s tech center—a cluster of technology companies located along this freeway which partially rings the city. Starting in the 1960s and on through the 1980s, Route 128 was, if anything, more closely associated with tech than Silicon Valley. Today few young technology workers even know where Route 128 is located, let alone its importance in the tech world. Silicon Valley has simply left Boston’s tech center behind.

In the 1980’s the Silicon Valley and Route 128 looked very similar—a mix of large and small tech firms, world class universities, venture capital, and military funding. If you were betting on one you’d have been wise to bet on Route 128 because of its longer industrial history and proximity to a large number of high quality educational institutions (Harvard, Yale, Brown, MIT, Tufts, Amherst) and proximity to Bell Labs and other large corporate research centers. You remember Bell Labs, right? It’s where the transistor was invented. Now, aside from big biotech breakthroughs, Boston is a distant second nationally to Silicon Valley in technology entrepreneurship. So, what happened to Boston?

A young professor at UC-Berkeley, AnnaLee Saxenian, wrote a book in 1994 which answers this question. At a time when Boston still thought it was the powerhouse of the tech industry, Saxenian declared Boston the loser in the tech race and explained why it would only fall further behind. This book was titled Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128. It kicked off a firestorm of criticism from the Boston elite. Saxenian also alienated friends at her alma mater, MIT.

She noted that Silicon Valley had an amazing dynamism about it. There were extensive professional networks, job hopping was the norm, information was exchanged openly, and the culture encouraged risk taking. The Silicon Valley ecosystem supported entrepreneurial experimentation and collective learning. In other words, Silicon Valley was a very open network—a giant social networking site working in analog before the concept of such a thing even existed.

This organizational mechanism was in sharp contrast to that of Route 128. Dominated by large, vertically integrated, and secretive minicomputer producers such as DEC, Wang, Prime, and Data General. Technology, skill, and know-how were trapped within the boundaries of the large corporations.

The differences were evident at many levels: venture capitalists in Silicon Valley had deep roots in local networks and were far more nimble than their east coast counterparts; educational institutions and research labs in the West partnered with local startups as well as more established firms, while those in the East worked only with the largest corporations; and the meritocratic openness of Silicon Valley made it a magnet for non-traditional talent and immigrants.

By the mid-1990s the east had missed the shift from minicomputers to personal computers as the flexible Silicon Valley ecosystem sped ahead with innovation across a diversifying range of components and systems going from chips, routers, and application software to ecommerce and search engines. Today Silicon Valley is the leading location for cleantech venture activity, an area widely considered to be the next big value creation engine for the U.S. and the world.

Boston, however, is no slouch. The Route 128 community remains the second biggest in the U.S. in terms of venture funds committed. Boston has powerful research institutions, still, and lots of very strong companies. In some areas, such as biotech, Boston may even rival Silicon Valley. But overall, its pretty clear that the Valley has not only won but is racing further ahead.

Most entrepreneurs and engineers that come to Silicon Valley, come to experience this network and to embrace the culture it has created. That’s why I came, too. Network effects don’t just work for fax machines. But then again, most of them knew that intrinsically. University guys like me need to do a bunch of surveys to figure it out. They voted with their hearts and feet.

Editor’s note: Guest writer Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned academic. He is a Visiting Scholar at UC-Berkeley, Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School and Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University. Follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwa.