In 1939, Bill Hewlett and David Packard started a small computer hardware company out of a one-car garage at 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto, California. According to Silicon Valley folklore, this is technology’s very own nativity. Today, the house on Addison Avenue is marked with a historical landmark plaque which reads: ‘Birthplace of Silicon Valley’.
However, as with the growth of any industry hub, the complex alchemy of economic development cannot be attributed to any single event. Investment promotion officials and policymakers know to their chagrin that creating a successful industry hub is a result of an indeterminable confluence of factors that are often a result of historical happenstance, impossible to control or recreate.
Determining factors in the creation of Silicon Valley date back as far as the late 1800s when San Francisco’s port became a hub for the early telegraph and radio industries. Technology development in the valley truly gained traction when, in 1933, the US navy established Moffett Field naval air station, which became a major hub for the aerospace industry, attracting scientists and researchers to the area. Then, in 1939, NASA established the Ames Research Centre at the site. Arguably, it was the innovation that grew out of this space race which was foundational for the future development of Silicon Valley.
What followed were many milestones including the creation of pioneer companies such as Hewlett Packard, Bell Labs, Shockley Semiconductor Labs and Intel, the development of transistors from silicon, government research projects including Apranet and the Apollo programme – all facilitated by a funnel of employees to the industry from Palo Alto’s Stanford University. The final piece in the puzzle was the opening of Xerox’s PARC lab in 1970 where early computing technology was developed. It was a decade that saw the creation of Atari, Apple and Oracle – and, as they say, the rest is history.
Is Silicon Valley losing its edge?
According to Start-up Genome’s 2020 Global Start-up Ecosystem Report (GSER), the global start-up economy created nearly $3trn in value between 2017 and up to the first two quarters of 2019, a figure equal to the GDP of a G7 economy. Seven out of the top ten largest companies in the world are technology companies. Of these, a disproportionate number were founded in Silicon Valley.
It is no surprise then that countries have tried to foster this blueprint of the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem in the hope of creating the elusive ‘unicorn’ – companies valued at more than $1bn. More than 80 ecosystems globally have produced billion-dollar start-ups to date, according to Start-up Genome. This represents a shift from 2013, when the term unicorn was first popularised and only four global ecosystems produced billion dollar-exits.
- Unicorns: companies valued at more than $1bn.
- Decacorns: companies valued at more than $10bn.
- Hectocorns: companies valued at more than $100bn.
As of May 2021, the cumulative value of the world’s 672 unicorns stood at $2.19trn, according to CB Insights, and although the global spread of these companies is largely weighted in the US and China, ecosystems across the world are starting to see unicorn numbers rising.
It might just be that the tired narrative of ‘the next Silicon Valley’ has become outdated. Veteran entrepreneur, YCombinator and Open AI founder and Silicon Valley native Sam Altman says: “Instead of one new centre or two new centres [of entrepreneurship, besides Silicon Valley], there will be 30, and there will be clusters in different places that don’t quite get to the density of the Bay Area but get beyond critical mass.”
The US remains tech global centre of gravity (for now)
The US still produces more successful start-ups and venture capital than any other country. Just six cities attract more than half of all global venture capital investment, despite housing only 1% of the global population, according to the Centre for American Entrepreneurship. Four (San Francisco, New York, San Jose and Boston) of those six cities are in the US and, of those four, two are in Silicon Valley.
The idea that globally successful start-ups must always launch and scale in Silicon Valley is no longer true, however. This is reflected in the decline of the US’s global share of venture capital from 95% in the mid-1990s to more than two-thirds in 2012 to just over half by 2017, according to Centre for American Entrepreneurship data.
The democratisation of global tech hubs is taking place on a local level in the continental US. New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle, Austin, Dallas and the North Carolina tech triangle have all emerged as alternative centres of technology entrepreneurship.
New York emerges as Silicon Valley's primary competitor
Start-up Genome’s 2020 GSER ranked New York a joint global second with London, reflecting New York’s entrenched position as Silicon Valley’s primary US competitor. This position is further cemented by GlobalData's research, which finds that New York leads the world with the highest number of unicorns outside Silicon Valley.
New York has tech and engineering talent but it is also the place where companies go to commercialise their products and take the tech to market. Eli Dworkin, Centre for an Urban Future
A significant increase in investment in the New York start-up ecosystem in 2020 signals that the city’s success is unlikely to reverse in the short term. Venture capital funding reached $5.8bn in 2020, up more than 75% from $3.3bn in 2019, according to data released in April 2021 from venture capital firm Work-Bench.
Eli Dworkin, a research fellow at New York’s Centre for an Urban Future, believes the fundamentals that made New York the US’s number two tech hub remain strong despite the disruption of the Covid-19 crisis. “New York has tech and engineering talent but it is also the place where companies go to commercialise their products and take the tech to market," he says. "Apart from the tech talent, there is a steady supply of marketing, finance, operations, advertising and design talent with all those fields coming together in New York. It is probably the best place in the world to find all that talent in one place."
Dworkin believes affordability will be the greatest challenge New York’s tech sector faces. “The pandemic has accelerated many people’s timelines of looking to the suburbs for more space for growing families," he says. "Cities that might have seemed like minor competition a few months ago have been making a very strong play for New York tech talent and tech founders.”
It remains to be seen what plays out in the coming months as lockdown restrictions ease. “Some companies take the long view and are doubling down on New York with an opportunity to lock in new leases at relatively affordable rates,” says Dworkin. According to data from real estate company CBRE for the fourth quarter of 2020, office rental rates in New York’s downtown, midtown and midtown-south had started to fall with the rate of decline expected to accelerate over the following 6–12 months.
Immigration has been a critical factor in New York’s success, although the Trump era restrictions on highly skilled foreign worker visas demonstrated how the tech industry can be adversely affected by presidential administrations' differing stances on immigration policy.
With this in mind, Dworkin says New York’s continuing success may depend on the city’s ability to generate more home-grown talent to fuel the tech sector’s growth. “The city has got to become better at not only serving as a beacon for global talent but to also be an incubator of talent here at home," he adds. "We have a lot more work to do, whether its continuing to boost STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] credentials in our public colleges, making sure our workforce development programmes are aligned with tech sector needs or investing in access to computing education in schools.”
London flexes its financial muscle
London ranked joint second with New York in Start-up Genome’s 2020 GSER, rising steadily from eighth position in 2012. According to Tech Nation’s 2021 report, the UK ranked third for attracting venture capital investment after the US and China, punching far above its weight when considering the country’s relative GDP.
Economic uncertainty arising from the Covid-19 crisis and the UK’s exit from the EU was reflected in a drop in investment levels in the first half of 2020, but according to Tech Nation the second half of the year saw record quarterly levels. Drilling down to regional tech hubs, London ranked fourth globally for attracting venture capital tech investment after San Francisco, Beijing, New York and Shanghai.
London & Partners managing director Janet Coyle’s career has spanned both Silicon Valley and London. She says the past decade has seen London transform to host a thriving start-up culture with improved access to capital. UK companies always had access to seed funding, but growth capital was missing, and historically it was at this point that they would look towards Silicon Valley venture capital companies that might persuade them to relocate to the US. “It made sense at the time, but there is much more capital available now,” says Coyle. Silicon Valley venture capital firms such as Sequoia Capital have set up outposts in London, demonstrating this shift.
Silicon Valley can learn from our impact investing, from London’s diversity and how outward looking we are. Janet Coyle, London & Partners
Coyle notes that cultural and lifestyle factors make London a unique proposition for overseas investment. Although diversity has risen up the investment agenda of late, Silicon Valley has still not managed to redress inequity when it comes to investing in diverse founders. “Silicon Valley can learn from our impact investing, from London’s diversity and how outward looking we are,” says Coyle.
So-called ‘soft factors’ are also worth considering when looking at London’s challenge to Silicon Valley. UK education-tech company Guide Education founder Leon Hady believes the UK’s reputation in education is invaluable when exporting his offering globally. “Reputation helps to get in front of people because the education sector in the UK is held in such high regard,” he says.
The UK government’s concerted effort to foster a technology start-up culture through grants and business support is also a factor. Guide Education received a £6m funding round in early 2021, part of which was from the UK government. The company was also part of the London mayor’s office development programme. “I would probably put down 20% of our revenue over the past 12 months to that programme, due to its trade missions and other entities,” says Hady.
Fintech is London’s crown jewel
Findexable’s 2020 Global Fintech report ranked London second globally for fintech after Silicon Valley.
Keith Grose, UK head of San Francisco-headquartered fintech company Plaid, was hired in 2019 to spearhead its European expansion. As he sees it, the UK’s technology ‘crown jewel’ is its fintech ecosystem. “It is really important post-Brexit for the UK to do whatever it can to make it easy for businesses to operate,” says Grose.
Plaid selected London because of the UK capital’s market access to existing and potential financial services clients. “There is a really great connection between Silicon Valley and London, especially in the fintech ecosystem," he says. "It is a strong starting place if you are moving in either direction."
However, investment promotion agencies are becoming increasingly fierce and efficient in reaching out to businesses with expansion plans, adds Grose, who is frequently being approached by locations vying to become the next fintech capital of Europe. While London’s standing is good, there is certainly no room for complacency.
Why does London not produce more unicorns?
UK video conferencing start-up Starleaf is the UK’s answer to Zoom. Founder and CEO Mark Richer is a serial entrepreneur with three successful UK scale-ups under his belt. After 40 years of experience of growing companies, Richer has reached the conclusion that the UK's underperformance when it comes to producing unicorns all comes down to market size. “[The US] doesn't have better systems, a better economy, better business environments; if anything some of its markets are controlled, warped and monopolistic,” says Richer.
The world’s top ten most valuable companies are run with computer scientists and yet just 3% of graduates from a top-tier UK institution such as Cambridge are studying it. Mark Richer, Starleaf
A first-to-market technology needs enough critical mass to launch, which a US company can access in its home market. If a UK version of Amazon had launched a couple of years after the actual Amazon, would it not have already been too late? For this reason, Richer says Brexit does not bode well for the UK. “That was the exact reasoning behind a single European market,” he adds.
Richer also explains the unicorn differential between the US and elsewhere through its success in fostering technology skills through education. Richer cites the specific example of Cambridge University’s annual intake of 3,000 undergraduates, of which 100 are computer science students. “The world’s top ten most valuable companies are run with computer scientists and yet just 3% of graduates from a top-tier UK institution such as Cambridge are studying it,” he says.
Beijing challenges Silicon Valley with human capital
The next global hub to rank after London and New York in Start-up Genome’s 2020 GSER is Beijing, a city which, along with Seoul, outpaces all other locations for top-tier tech universities, according to GlobalData research.
Beijing has been playing catch-up to Silicon Valley for many years, but in terms of universities and unicorns per city, the gap has closed. GlobalResearch research found Beijing was closing in on its US competitors with 44 unicorns compared with New York’s 45 – the highest number outside Silicon Valley.
Beijing is home to one of China’s most valuable artificial intelligence (AI) unicorns, Bytedance, parent company of social media platform TikTok. The company courted controversy around its planned overseas expansions and acquisitions, becoming locked in a high-profile dispute with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US. Valued at $95bn, Bytedance is the world’s largest privately backed start-up. The flagship company is the centrepiece of an ecosystem of 1,071 AI companies in Beijing, according to Start-up Genome, representing 26% of China’s AI companies. Zhongguancun, Beijing’s principal tech hub, is home to ten AI labs.
Added to this, the Chinese state is in the process of building a $2.1bn AI technology park in Beijing’s suburban Mentougou district, which sits in line with the state policy of making AI a national priority. In July 2017, the State Council of China released the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan outlining China’s strategy to build a domestic AI industry to lead the world by 2030.
Based in Shanghai, Cameron Johnson, adjunct faculty instructor at New York University and a partner at Shanghai-based Tidal Wave Solutions, claims that China’s AI expertise has already surpassed that of Silicon Valley. “AI companies in Asia are the most advanced in the world because they have 1.5 billion people to play with,” he says. The Chinese state’s five-year plan is well and truly in motion, according to Johnson, who says: “Things move faster here than they do anywhere in the world. Now there is a critical mass, we are seeing an explosion of innovation.”
Things move faster here than they do anywhere in the world. Now there is a critical mass, we are seeing an explosion of innovation. Cameron Johnson, Tidal Wave Solutions
Beijing’s financial sector accounted for 17% of the city’s economic activity in 2017. The Beijing Fintech Demonstration Zone and Tiger Demonstration Zone were both announced in 2018. Tiger Brokers, an online brokerage, raised $80m in 2018, and has reached unicorn status. Du Xiaoman Financial, Chinese tech giant Baidu's fintech arm, raised $1.9bn in 2018, followed by a $2.89bn credit line from Bank of Tianjin.
However, despite Bejing’s rapid ascent and ability to churn out unicorns, the city ranked fourth after Silicon Valley, London and New York in Start-up Genome’s 2020 GSER. As the democratisation of global tech hubs increases, so too has the centre of gravity within continental China shifted as Beijing and Shanghai are no longer the only globally recognised Chinese tech ecosystems.
In the Start-up Genome ranking, China has gone from having two of the top 30 global start-up ecosystems in 2017 to having four in 2020: Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hangzhou. Shenzhen has established itself as a robotics and advanced manufacturing centre while Hangzhou is home to Chinese tech giant Alibaba.
Johnson points to China’s cohesive state strategy for global tech supremacy and a unique Asian model of innovation as reasons for Beijing’s ascent. A competitive, state-aided internal market that has spawned the highest number of global unicorns is now expanding all over South East Asia. This strategy is spurred by a cultural affinity towards a larger Asian market as well as a counter strategy to tackle the misunderstanding and mistrust China has received from the West, says Johnson.
“Most of these countries have state-owned enterprises like China’s, or at least a similar dominant structure, so it is a normal part of business and I would assume it is similar to the EU in terms of a market of different languages which nevertheless shares cultural traits,” he adds.
The challenge for Chinese companies comes when they run into protectionism from the West as they try to scale up globally. Johnson believes Silicon Valley’s misunderstanding and mistrust of the Asian business model may have serious consequences for the tech hub’s global pre-eminence. “US companies do not believe what Chinese firms or founders have to say,” states Johnson, whose role as consultant sees him evaluating Chinese firms for investment from the West. “I am asked how do we know the numbers are real? How do we know the game isn’t rigged?” he says, adding that Western companies are missing opportunities on this basis, which Asian companies are ready to reap.
Added to this, according to Start-up Genome, Beijing and Shanghai’s poor quality of global market reach means their start-ups typically do better locally. This is a limiting factor, and one that may relegate Chinese companies to operating solely inside Asian markets or even bifurcate the global technology market.
However, Johnson sees no danger in a grand uncoupling of China versus the West. “It is like a marriage; there is no way to untangle the connectedness of supply chains without extremely severe consequences to the Western world,” he says. For all that is written about a new cold war, Johnson adds: “It is a flight of fancy and has no bearing on the real situation of interconnectedness.”
How Tel Aviv and Jerusalem became AI hubs
Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel ranked a combined sixth globally for their start-up ecosystem, according to Start-up Genome’s 2020 GSER. This tech hub has the highest number of start-ups per capita in the world after Silicon Valley, according to the ranking. The start-up ecosystem has an estimated value of $47bn compared with the global average of $10.5bn.
Israel ranked third for the number of AI start-ups globally. AI is the leading sector for start-ups based in Tel Aviv, accounting for 40.7% of all start-ups and 25% of employees in the city, according to Start-up Genome.
Israel’s successful start-up record has been helped by strong government support. The country’s Technology Incubator programme was established in the early 1990s, and eventually generated more than 25 incubators, all of which have been privatised. The incubators offer government funding of up to 85% of early-stage project costs for two years. Added to this, the Israel Innovation Authority provides a variety of support initiatives, the main one being an R&D grant fund programme. Tel Aviv’s ecosystem includes 107 multinational companies, many of which have R&D centres and innovation hubs in the city, including Yandex, Amazon and Alibaba. In March 2018, Google set up its first start-up accelerator focused on AI and machine learning outside of the US in Tel Aviv.
The cloud and big data is the second-largest tech sector in Tel Aviv’s start-up ecosystem. The country is also strong on cybersecurity expertise, exporting $6.5bn in cybersecurity products every year. It was the first country to offer a cybersecurity doctorate and it is home to six cybersecurity university research centres. Cybersecurity exits in Israel totalled $3.4bn in 2019 with 23 deals including Demisto, which was acquired by Palo Alto Networks for $560m in 2019.
Singapore, Seoul and Tokyo on the rise
The democratisation of tech ecosystems has seen the rise of Asia-Pacific as the home to some of the world's leading tech hubs. According to Start-up Genome, the region now plays host to 30% of the world’s top ecosystems, compared with 20% in 2012. Of the 11 new ecosystems to have made it into the top ecosystems list in that time, six are in Asia-Pacific.
The report notes that Seoul and Tokyo, in particular, have challenged established ecosystems in the region with their strong R&D capabilities. Tokyo ranked 15th in start-up Genome’s 2020 GSER.
Japan is the world's predominant industrial robot manufacturer and produces more than half of the global supply. The Japan Robot Association, the world’s first trade association for robot manufacturers, was formed in Tokyo in 1971 with members including Denso, Hitachi, Sony, Toshiba, Yamaha Motors, Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Electric. Notable start-ups from Tokyo include Synstpective, a space technology company developing small synthetic aperture radar, which raised $99.9m in a Series A round in July 2019. Tokyo established a Start-up Ecosystem Consortium in early 2020 to support and incubate innovative local start-ups through collaboration between government, research institutions and the private sector.
Seoul’s start-up ecosystem is particularly strong on gaming and life sciences. With about $12.14bn in revenue, South Korea’s gaming industry is the fourth largest in the world, according to Start-up Genome. The country has 28.9 million players with about 39% of them watching gaming content online. In 2018, Bluehole, a South Korean fantasy game developer for PC and mobile devices, raised $500m from China’s Tencent Holdings and became a unicorn. In 2017, Netmarble, South Korea’s largest mobile game developer, raised $2.3bn in the country’s second-largest ever initial public offering (IPO).
South Korea is the fifth-highest investor in R&D in the world, with about $94.5bn spent. The country’s R&D spending ratio to GDP is the second highest in the world at 4.3%, according to Start-up Genome. To accelerate the growth of start-ups, authorities in Seoul formed the $1bn Seoul Future Investment Fund, and an online platform is being built to support start-ups to go global from a very early stage. Added to this, GlobalData research shows that, along with Beijing, Seoul is home to the most top-tier technology universities in the world.
Alfie Amir, a principal analyst at GlobalData based in Malaysia, says that while there are various initiatives by governments and established industry players in Asia to drive innovation and start-ups, lack of support from venture capital and private equity firms remains a major challenge in the region.
Singapore-based ride-hailing app Grab is South East Asia’s first decacorn. The company was founded by Malaysia-born Harvard graduate and entrepreneur Anthony Tan, who decided to locate Grab on his home continent, rather than launch in Silicon Valley. In April 2021, Grab Holdings listed on Nasdaq through a $39.6bn merger deal with a blank-cheque company, Altimeter Growth Corporation. The transaction was the largest merger involving a special purpose acquisition company and the $4bn fundraising from global investors is likely to be the biggest US equity offering by a South East Asian company.
Altimeter Growth Corporation is a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, which demonstrates the reliance upon US venture capital from even the largest South East Asian tech companies as things stand. However, the region's digital economy is set to triple to $309bn by 2025, and Grab is likely to herald a new generation of digital giants in what many analysts see as the next big battleground for consumer tech companies.
Stockholm and Amsterdam fuel Europe's challenge
Stockholm and Amsterdam have emerged as global tech hub challengers, ranking tenth and twelfth, respectively, in Start-up Genome’s 2020 GSER. According to the report, both cities have demonstrated strong improvement over the past few years.
Amsterdam ranks very highly for connectedness, benefiting from the Netherlands’ logistical and social connectedness to the world. The country ranked first in DHL’s Global Connectedness Index 2020, a position it has held since 2017. High-profile unicorns from the country include payment processing firm Adyen, which listed one of Europe’s largest tech IPOs in recent years in June 2018, with a value of $8bn.
Fintech company Plaid selected Amsterdam as a location for its product and technical teams when it expanded into Europe. Grose, who is the company's UK head, says Amsterdam was an easy sell thanks to its transport links and the help that was on offer from the city's investment promotion agency. Melbourne-headquartered fintech Airwallex is building an engineering team in Amsterdam as part of its European expansion plans.
With an ecosystem valued at approximately $44bn, Stockholm’s performance as a rising global tech hub in Start-up Genome’s 2020 GSER was driven by a high volume of substantial exits – an exit being the point in a start-up’s lifecycle whereby it either issues an IPO or is sold to a larger company and investors actualise the return on their initial investment. The city ranked second in western Europe after London in terms of exits, which were valued at more than $50bn, including Spotify’s IPO of $26.6bn in 2018. The company now has a market capitalisation of close to $60bn. Swedish fintech Klarna, expected to issue an IPO later in 2021, was valued at $31bn as of March 2021, making it the most valuable venture capital-backed private company in Europe, according to PitchBook data.
Stockholm’s start-up ecosystem has benefited from an established number of unicorns including Skype, Spotify, Klarna and iZettle, which have created the conditions to help early-stage start-ups prosper and scale. One-fifth of Stockholm’s workforce is employed in technology, the highest share of any city in Europe.
What is next for Silicon Valley?
CB Insights' 2020 list of 50 future unicorns shows that the majority of these companies will originate from the US. The prediction shows that the most represented state is still California, with 24 potential unicorns, compared with New York’s nine in second place.
However, Silicon Valley faces some critical challenges. In 2020, California's population fell for the first time since records began, by more than 182,000 to just under 39.5 million, representing a 0.46% drop on the previous year. Although relatively small, the decrease in population is nevertheless significant as immigration has historically served as one of the state’s primary engines of growth.
Places such as Houston are benefiting from investments in tech hubs that they are able to offer because they have the land to build them on, in contrast to Silicon Valley. John Byrne, GlobalData
Other issues are hitting Silicon Valley, such as businesses choosing to relocate out of state due to the Bay Area’s high taxes, growing social problems, including homelessness, and a monoculture that some accuse of becoming increasingly intolerant towards opposing political viewpoints.
There is a clear trend towards companies heading away from Silicon Valley and towards other markets, notably in Texas but also North Carolina and other areas of the US, according to GlobalData analyst John Byrne, due to a combination of lower corporate taxes, lower housing costs and a better quality of life. “Places such as Houston are also benefiting from investments in tech hubs that they are able to offer because they have the land to build them on, in contrast to Silicon Valley,” says Byrne.
In December 2020, Hewlett Packard announced it will move its global headquarters from the Bay Area to Houston by early 2022. For a founding company synonymous with the history and development of Silicon Valley, the company’s departure marks a definite shift towards a new generation of global tech hubs all vying to replicate Silicon Valley’s unparalleled success.