By now I’m sure you’ve read at least one article with a title like “Detroit Hopes To Drive Tech Startups Away From Silicon Valley,” or “Five Cities Poised to Become the Next Silicon Valley” or my personal favorite, “Move Silicon Valley to Cleveland.”
Even I have played with these types of comparisons, but that was more than four years ago and I think it might be time to give it a rest with all this “next Silicon Valley” business. I just don’t think we’re gaining any real insights by trying to correlate any other place on the planet with what has happened in the last 50 years in a “one-in-a-billion” place like the Bay Area.
Don’t get me wrong, I live and work in Northeast Ohio and I’m a shameless champion for our region. I’m even willing to tolerate a certain amount of hyperbole in modern business journalism; but let’s be honest, there are really no apples-to-apples comparisons to be made here.
Equating Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Austin, New York or Boston’s entrepreneurial ecosystems to Silicon Valley is sort of like claiming you could throw a no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants. It’s a provocative story that might make “homers” feel good, but anyone who knows anything about baseball knows you’re kidding yourself at best — frighteningly delusional at worse. You may have a sneaky curveball – but lying to yourself about your game won’t help you get to the majors any faster – or improve your credibility with people who know what it is like to work and live in the big leagues.
Sports analogies aside, I am incredibly proud of the entrepreneurial ecosystem we are working to build in Northeast Ohio. At the same time, I understand that the entrepreneurial economy in our region looks more like Palo Alto in 1970 than 2015.
So, let’s get over it. None of us are going to be the next Silicon Valley — at least not in our lifetimes. The primary question is, how can Silicon Valley inspire us to progress and improve our own entrepreneurial ecosystems? The gargantuan size and scope of Silicon Valley’s ecosystem does not make the rapid growth of Northeast Ohio’s any less impressive, important or relevant. Nor does it erase the decades of inspiring progress in places like Pittsburgh or the great work happening in New York, Boston and Austin at this very moment.
It’s time to uncouple ourselves from the Silicon Valley measuring stick and focus on building our own entrepreneurial ecosystems on our own terms. That’s not to say there aren’t lessons to learn from the Bay Area. In fact, when we free ourselves from all the superficial comparisons, we can actually start to understand how Silicon Valley became successful, rather than simply coveting the buzz and headlines of that success.
Fifty years ago Silicon Valley was little more than a collection of small agricultural communities in close proximity to Stanford University, along with a few military installations. Regions like Northeast Ohio — who have benefited from forward-thinking private-public partnerships like the Ohio Third Frontier and the Fund for Our Economic Future — take a great deal of inspiration from the fact that the rise of Silicon Valley was no accident. In many ways it was a planned community, designed to capitalize on the existing confluence of academic and military resources, who found themselves smack dab in the middle the fastest growing new industry in human history — semiconductors.
Today we think of Silicon Valley as the land of venture capital, but the massive federal investments made by the Department of Defense and other federal agencies in and around the semiconductor industry cannot be overstated. Long before anyone was using the term “entrepreneurial ecosystem,” our federal government laid the foundations for what has become a perpetual motion machine of technologically-based entrepreneurship.
Northeast Ohio has an even longer entrepreneurial history, one that begins with the second industrial revolution and moves through the decline of the traditional manufacturing-based economies of the 20th Century. We spent the 2000’s much as the Bay Area spent the early 1950’s, laying a new groundwork — building the ecosystem required to achieve future success. Today, that groundwork is producing results; but we are far from out of the woods, and even further from comparing ourselves to the modern Silicon Valley.
The Bay Area had transistors and microprocessors. Perhaps our game-changer companies will be focused on medical technology or additive manufacturing. However our story plays out, it will not be the same as Silicon Valley’s.
We’re not the next Silicon Valley. We are the new and ever-improving entrepreneurial center called Northeast Ohio — and that’s just fine by me. So, wherever you live and work, why not stop comparing your entrepreneurial economy to Silicon Valley and instead champion the elements that make your community unique?
This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on June 25, 2015