Start-ups don’t need universities as much as they used to

When asked what they’re doing to foster tech start-ups, European governments often point to their efforts at supporting local universities. Sadly, they rarely end up with tech giants of their own, writes Nicolas Colin for Forbes.

We always hear that Silicon Valley was born because Stanford University, located in Palo Alto, supplied many researchers and engineers working on cutting-edge technology. This is why the recipe for building another Silicon Valley sounds so simple: Develop your own Stanford, and the rest will follow. Accordingly many policy-makers end up passing their time subsidising research laboratories and trying to attract more students to their local universities. Innovation, it seems, always starts with a university. This misleading idea is sustained by Silicon Valley itself. High wages, substantial equity and generous perks are the weapons in this war waged among tech companies. As Sequoia Capital’s John Doerr once declared, these companies are only “limited by their ability to execute – to get great, smart people”.

It’s understandable why Silicon Valley executives marvel at the comparatively abundant and cheap tech talent in Europe and encourage investment in universities. But the idea that it takes a Stanford to make a Silicon Valley is wrong. Universities are largely absent from the great waves of innovation of recent years, which are increasingly driven by large tech companies (Google’s self-driving cars, Amazon’s voice assistant) and developer communities (as in the cases of mass computation and cryptocurrencies, among others).
Full report on the Forbes site