Vivek Wadhwa, one of the most outspoken academics on innovation and entrepreneurship, spoke today about how Berkeley could position itself to capture a more than fair share of technology start-ups. “It’s surprisingly easy to fix Berkeley,” Wadhwa declared. “Everything is here.”
Wadhwa was speaking at the Infusion Lunch at Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse, organized by Sylvia Paull. He spoke to an audience of local business owners, entrepreneurs, students and city officials, including Economic Development Manager Michael Caplan with whom he shared the stage. The lunch was hosted by the Berkeley Startup Cluster.
Wadhwa has academic appointments in the School of Information at UC Berkeley, at Duke University’s engineering school, and at Harvard Law School. He writes for both Bloomberg BusinessWeek and TechCrunch and is a prolific tweeter.
Wadhwa said he travels around the world telling countries and regions the exact opposite of what he thinks should be done in Berkeley. What makes Berkeley different, he said, is that it already has an extraordinary reservoir of world-class science and technology talent in the university and Berkeley Lab, as well as proximity to the technology hotbeds of San Francisco and Silicon Valley. “Berkeley is teeming with brilliant people and brilliant professors. It has the culture, the risk takers and the brains — it just needs an epicenter for start-ups like Silicon Valley has,” he said. He also pointed out that Berkeley is diverse and that 52% of start-ups in Silicon Valley were founded by immigrants.
Members of the audience mentioned other ingredients that make Berkeley a natural location for tech start-ups, such as the fact it is bike-friendly and has ample public transit, great restaurants, coffeeshops and accommodation.
Wadhwa had a host of observations on entrepreneurial myths, notably that entrepreneurs are not typically white college dropouts. The average entrepreneur is 39, and there are more entrepreneurs over 50 than under 25. But Wadhwa’s advice for Berkeley can be boiled down to five simple ideas:
- Don’t pick winners. Wadhwa said venture capitalists delude themselves that they can pick which technologies and companies will win. Their record in fact is poor. He advocates opening the doors wide because there is no way of knowing what will succeed and what will fail.
- Build critical mass fast. Berkeley has “everything”, but it doesn’t have a critical mass of start-up companies. Wadhwa said you should have a space where 100 companies could set up in the next year. Make it free or very low rent. One model that many commenters referred to is Sunnyvale’s Plug and Play Tech Center.
- High-speed Internet and networking events go a long way. Many start-up companies don’t need much. Great Internet, other companies around them, and regular parties to meet and mingle with like minds.
- Make noise. “You need a gimmick to tell techies that Berkeley is changing.” Do something visible and dramatic and make a splash.
- Money will follow. You don’t need local venture capitalists or angels. “VCs are like sharks. If there’s blood in the water — a good idea — they’ll come running.”
Michael Alvarez Cohen from the Berkeley Startup Cluster, who was also on stage with Wadhwa, said entrepreneurs thinking of setting up companies should talk to the Cluster as it is planning to set up a tech-friendly space in Berkeley.