Notes from the Silicon Valley tech scene. Beyond the Googleplex and Apple HQ
Silicon Valley. Even before Intel started manufacturing microchips out of the sand that gave this place its name in 1971, innovation has sprung out of this southern region of the San Francisco Bay Area.
The COVID crisis has naturally infected the region with an uncharacteristic strain of depression. Some tech workers are fleeing Silicon Valley for areas with lower rents, lower taxes and a more balanced quality of life. But this place has seen dips before. As a magnet for top tech talent, it will almost certainly rise again to greater heights.
This is the home of the original dotcom bubble. It’s also the place where dreams went to die, when that bubble popped because promises were made about tech that just weren’t fully baked. And in the past two decades, it has become the primary engine of growth for the US economy as a whole. It gets a third of all venture investment in America -- and the lion’s share of startups and tech giants are here.
In 2013, venture capital investor Aileen Lee coined the term ‘unicorn’ companies, defining the small group of privately owned companies that are valued at $1 billion USD. Of the 452 that exist in the world, an estimated 64 can be found in San Francisco - nicely complimented by a further 51 in the wider Bay Area and another 21 in Southern California.
There is the GooglePlex in Palo Alto. Mark Zuckerberg’s social media giant, Facebook makes friends with neighbors in Menlo Park. There’s the disc-shaped Apple Park, in Cupertino. Uber is in San Francisco proper -- just a short drive from this tech heartland. Instagram, Netflix, PayPal, YouTube… the list just goes on and on. And it’s not just digital innovation -- clean-energy giant Tesla Inc., the leading manufacturer of electric vehicles, is just down the road. Beyond the giants, CrunchBase lists nearly 3,500 startups in Silicon Valley, with over $80 billion in recent funding rounds.
The principal challenge for so many innovative companies in this tech-centric land of plenty? Standing out from the crowd. Competition is fierce -- but the truth is that so many tech startups and apps that don’t just look and act the same -- they literally try to do the same thing.
Public relations and marketing more generally helps startups and scale-ups to get the attention they need to win new users, investors and acclaim. News makes news, as we say -- and we love working with Silicon Valley tech innovators. We’ve spent a fair bit of time learning about this place ourselves, through distant observation and close contact with tech clients. It’s a fascinating place -- and we’re happy to share what we’ve learned right here.
Beyond Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Silicon Valley’s social media platforms keep adding to their network.
The most popular social media platforms combined account for an estimated 2 billion people consuming and sharing content. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, for better or worse, are places where we chat, date, entertain ourselves and occasionally even make friends (or enemies).
Clearly, the big, famous apps are where most of the social networking takes place. But some of the more interesting niches in the social space have caught our attention -- mainly for the kinds of subcultures they foster.
For instance, some say the talk of the town is Clubhouse -- which, with just 1,500 users, might not seem like much. But it’s backed by $100 million in venture capital. Why the disconnect? It’s small number of users is a feature, not a bug. It’s a place where prominent tech investors come together to chat in virtual rooms -- or just listen to conversations that are happening, sort of like hearing a live podcast.
For those sick of fake news and partisan reality bubbles on the big social networks, Factr seems like just the thing. It’s a social network where you can organize and share what you know far more efficiently. In contrast to the big networks, “on Factr, you're not a product.” Definitely one to watch.
Continuing on a theme (we don’t dislike the big social networks -- but hey, they have their issues) there’s comedian and free-speech enthusiast Dave Rubin’s platform, Locals. Created in direct response to big tech’s censorship follies, it offers a model with simple rules: “don’t do anything illegal and don’t be a trolling jerk.” And since it’s a paid platform, that should keep away the kinds of anonymous jerks who have made Twitter into what some have unkindly termed a digital sewer. Progress!
If you’re looking for a stronger connection than just friendship, Linx calls itself Silicon Valley’s number-one matchmaker. A combined social network and dating app, it seems to be focused on super-talented, super-rich and super-good looking folks. Not sure if the last attribute is correlative or causative. Either way, it caught our attention. Our team endeavors to be just the sort of globe-trotting top professionals (and part-time magazine models) that seem to make up this fascinating social network.
Not keen on socialising on your phone? Eventbrite has become a household name for translating your search for like-minded individuals, to real life meetups. The event management and ticketing company allows users to browse, create and promote local events. Though the pandemic has delivered some sharp cuts, They’re now using their power for good, giving all US-based event-goers information on how to register to vote, check their voter status, and tips on how mail-in voting works.
People, planet, profit. Silicon Valley’s cleantech scene aims to save the world
Tesla’s electric cars and their million-mile car batteries (just try getting that far with a tank of gas) are a symbol of Silicon Valley’s drive towards clean energy heaven. California has the most clean energy jobs in the USA - and many of them are right in the valley. Solar panel manufacturers and somewhat ironically, photovoltaic panel recycling companies, are making hay while the sun is shining (and green subsidies are flowing), so to speak.
The diverse clean energy and cleantech marketplace are creating some interesting new value propositions for other kinds of tech firms. For instance, Quidnet Energy is aiming to solve the problem of just how to store all that clean energy coming online - and all those big solar power farms need drone companies like Dronebase to monitor them for efficient maintenance.
Another way to clean up the planet? Maximise what we get through existing methods. Alphabet Energy recently announced $23.5 million in financing for its waste heat-to-power business. We don’t typically see oil and gas companies as environmentally friendly-but once you’ve hooked up a system like this, it’s a lot less dirty than you might get from, say, Saudi Arabia or Venezuela.
And of course, you may have heard that California has a bit of a drought problem. Well, it’s not alone. Valor Water Analytics is applying its award-winning utility analytics software to this challenge. Waste not, want not - and since we value what we can measure, this seems like simple but refreshingly straightforward innovation to solve a fluid challenge.
Fintech and the companies that want to help you manage money better. For free, mostly.
The amount of money being made in Silicon Valley warrants some inventive solutions for managing money, and the fintech scene has been rightly blowing up since the 90s. PayPal kickstarted the ecommerce payments sector, taking advantage of the steadily growing internet and enabling the fast, low-cost payments we know and love today (what even is a chequebook?).
Following in PayPal’s footsteps, and celebrating its 10 year anniversary, Stripe now stands as one of the leading payments platform providers. With a special affinity for ecommerce, Stripe has helped alleviate some of the pain caused by the pandemic by helping other businesses transition to digital payments. Aware that pursestrings were tight, the company introduced new tools for customers to better manage subscriptions, and more options for international bank debits.
Money worries are not uncommon during the pandemic, and aside from Stripe’s new tools, Silicon Valley based Credit Karma has been offering free credit scores and insights for almost 20 years. The impact of the pandemic is well reflected in how Credit Karma’s spike in popularity, as job security and financial stability becomes a rare commodity.
Want to take your finance management a step further? Personal finance platform Sofi could help. Borrow, invest, spend and protect your money, is their motto, and with plans to become an actual bank, Sofi could have it all.
San Francisco based fintech Brex however, is more interested in helping other startups rather than focusing on the general public. Providing a cash management account and corporate card to startups enables startups to make fast payments, make free wire transfers, and get online support in 2 minutes.
Silicon Valley manufacturing (eg. Apple. Yes, America still builds stuff)
There’s a resurgence of what initially gave Silicon Valley its name: manufacturing. Surprising, considering that a lot of tech innovations exist in software and online platforms. Apple has over 200 suppliers, and while many do exist in China, they are reliant on multiple American companies too.
Intel and Qualcomm have become a recent essential cog in Apple’s operations, although they had carved a name for themselves, and Silicon Valley, long before. Intel drove the manufacturing of the semiconductors in the US, understandable considering co-founder Robert Noyce was the inventor of the silicon integrated circuit. 20 years later, Irwin Jacobs quit his consulting company Linkabit Corp to found Qualcomm, manufacturing technologies that would change the face of wireless communication forever.
Silicon Valley isn't just concerned with manufacturing -- they’re now optimizing the manufacturing process. Bright Machines uses AI and intelligent software to automate assembly and inspection, providing higher quality products at a lower cost. Listed as a 2020 BloombergNEF Pioneer, Bright Machines proves the manufacturing process has plenty of room for improvement.
And if that takes too long, Fictiv promises to have your parts manufactured in even less time -- in 24 hours actually. Their platform allows the design and upload of product drawings, along with instant pricing and online tracking -- they’re essentially the Amazon of manufacturers. They’re now teaming up with Jabil to “streamline 3D-print prototyping through to mass-scale production.” That’s proved to be particularly handy for continuing to manufacture in a socially distanced world.
For manufacturers that have their process down, looking at customer data may be the next step to upping their game. RetailNext provides in-store systems that allow manufacturers to analyze data on in-store customer engagement. Let feedback improve the manufacturing process, and let the data go full circle.
Biotech in Silicon Valley. Re-designing food for our changing tastes and needs
A great man once said, “I think the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection of biology and technology.” -- you might have heard of him, Steve Jobs? Having earned the majority of synthetic biology investments in the US, California leads in this particular section of biotech, described as the re-design of biological parts, devices, and systems.
Genentech was one of the first modern biotechnology companies, and created what is thought to be the first synthetic biology product -- human insulin. The invention spurred a new breed of biologists that strove to take this to the next level, and investments are pouring in as scientists re-design products for our changing tastes and needs.
Beyond Meat combines biology and technology to engineer plant-based meat substitutes, giving the growing population of vegetarians a sample of flavours and textures they may otherwise miss. Their IPO made one of the strongest market debuts to be seen in 2019, and with vegan burgers that taste and bleed like meat, it’s no surprise.
You’ve got meat without animals, so what about milk without dairy? Perfect Day combines the essential genes from cow’s milk with microflora, to replicate these proteins -- basically, they turn plant protein into milk, without bothering cows as much. These animal-free dairy products (which also come as vegan and lactose free), recently extended their third round of funding from $140 million to $300 million.
Aside from our love for animal-free products, what about calorie-free products? Instead of programming computers, Amyris’s biologists are programming yeast to create zero-calorie sweetener. Aside from health, the company focuses on creating sustainable fragrances and clean beauty products too -- their latest invention? A plant-derived silica, an alternative to microplastics to be found in most foundations, creams, and lotions.
The end of Silicon Valley? More like a hard reset
We now know that the state and needs of the global population can change in a matter of days. The technology that works for us today may need to be drastically different tomorrow -- and that will keep the tech experts of Silicon Valley in business for a long time.
Are you launching a new product or service that’ll save the masses? Or does your brand just need a little bit of love? Either way, reach out and see if we can put you in the news.