A lot of you who have a university in your town/city will have followed the “new” trend of the decade: your local politicians, possibly the University Chancellor or President, or members of the University Board of Regents have claimed that your local University is going to bring to your town new prosperity and new business by establishing a “tech park”. Maybe it all started when your local business leaders complain that your local public university is not doing enough to help the economy and the university responds by talking about a “Tech park”. At this point you should cringe, rant and rave and realize that your local Republican politicians have no clue. From decades of experience here are a few lessons I can pass onto your local politicians and your local University administrators. (see below)
Rule 1. No university should invest in a ‘Tech Park’ or a facility to hothouse “start-ups”. Why ? Well there are several parts to this. First universities do best by doing what universities do – that is being universities. Investing in the university itself is the best way to get local technology companies in your neighborhood (more on that later). Universities no longer have enough resources anymore to invest in anything other than in themselves. So you want to become a vibrant center for technology ? Invest in your local university: make it [your local university] the best you can in basic science and engineering.
Rule 2. Tech park managers don’t know any ‘tech’. They have no clue. They may be very nice folks, but techies have little interest in the tech park managers and your tech park manager is more likely to get a phone company or window installation company regional call center filling space in your local tech park than a high profile tech start-up. Techies like to talk to other techies and a good techie is not going to become a tech park manager.
Rule 3. Unless your local community is Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Austin, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Boulder, Madison, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Washington, Albany, Honolulu, or Detroit (yes, even Detroit) why does a techie with a start-up idea want to move to your community ? Low taxes ? Not a priority. Cheap housing ? Not a priority. A tech park ? Not a priority. Tax breaks ? Not a priority. The high priorities are other techies with whom to talk and with whom to go out for a beer. A coffee shop open at 3 am is a big plus. Ideally a restaurant open at 3 am with paper table cloths (for writing down equations and schematics during a heated discussion) in your town is a good thing. A sushi restaurant open at 3 am, with fresh sushi, is also good. Excellent take-away is a must. Tech is NOT 9-5, not in the start up stage, sometimes never. Specialty foods and quality stuff to buy: all a plus – yes lots of techies may look like bums, but they want to be comfortable bums. Guess what, appearance doesn’t matter, but comfort does. Oh, and a tolerant local police that does not get too fussed when I stop in the middle of the road to consider a possible solution to that pesky second order non-linear differential equation that has been bothering me all week is also a big plus.
Rule 4. The claims that your University tech park is better than all the others and if your community builds a local tech park then “they will come” are rubbish. There are about 125 ranked Ph.D. graduate programs in physics, and maybe 190 Ph.D. graduate physics programs altogether and almost everyone of those universities has a tech park. Your local university is competing with hundreds of other universities. Why is your local university special ? What is special about Boston (Route 128) and San Francisco are the very high densities of excellent Universities in a single location combined with a great urban environment with lots of attractions. It isn’t lower taxes for sure. It isn’t a tech park.
As an aside, you may ask: ‘Why physics graduate programs as a reference ? Well this is a little arcane, but typically physics is likely to be the single most expensive science or engineering department at your local university, and physics is great candidate for elimination, to save your university money, in the eyes of politicians. For good examples of shuttering physics departments while building tech parks: see Texas.
Rule 5. If your local community is very much conservative Republican, then as the hypothetical techie, I do not want to move to your neighborhood. There are a few Techies who are Republicans, and a few are very good, but these are the exceptions – I, the hypothetical techie, am most likely a liberal Democrat, and I have going to feel very unwelcome in a neighborhood of church going Republicans. Republican family values ? Not interested. Welcoming churches ? Sorry, Sunday is a workday. It isn’t just that I don’t want to move to your little University town hosting ‘monster state U.’, I can’t make my friends to move there because its boring [Rule 3], and they [my friends] don’t like the idea of living in a neighborhood of bible thumping right wingers. My friends may not know how to talk to any ‘real person’, but perception is everything. My techie friends are the ones who are going to help to my start-up succeed. Basically there are good reasons why most high tech start-ups locate in urban centers that are liberal Democratic districts. This is an extension of Rule 3, but leads to Rule 7.
Rule 6. While there are some faculty who have started successful companies (sometimes 2 or 3 companies) and continue to be excellent faculty, these are exceptions. That there are science and engineering faculty who can do this is great BUT still these are rare exceptions, not the norm. Universities should actively discourage faculty from considering starting a ‘start-up’. Faculty generally do better at being faculty. Most faculty who have tried to start a company fail, destroy their careers, their teaching of graduate students becomes awful, and their efforts at doing science come to a complete stop. Starting a tech company is a lot of work and most efforts will fail. In my experience, almost all tech companies started by faculty will fail; there are exceptions, but not many. Science and engineering faculty tend to be good at science and engineering, not business, not sales, and they are fools to think otherwise. The science and engineering faculty fail not because the ideas are bad, but because, like me, they do not have the ‘correct’ skill set. Faculty who can make a tech start-up succeed will ignore the discouraging noise – so my dear university administrators and politicians, don’t worry about being discouraging. Go for Rule 7. For research scientists out there who are offended by this rule, ask yourself: ‘am I willing to spend 70 hours a week at my start-up just like I spend the time in my laboratory at the University ?’
Rule 7. If your town does not match Rule 3, and Rule 5 is a problem, your best bet for acquiring a new local start up tech company in your community are the science and engineering students studying at your local university [NOT the faculty: see Rule 6]. If the students like the area, they may want to stay, they know people locally, and they know the professors to whom to go for tech advice. The more science and engineering students your university has, the more likely one will start a tech company locally. The better your science and engineering departments, then the better trained the students, the better advice to be had from local professors, the better the university facilities to assist that local start up (yes I know that in this latter case this is not the way it should be, but I am talking about reality, not the law). See Rule 1.
Rule 8. Make sure the local university understands that getting a degree in science or engineering costs MUST NOT cost students more than getting a degree in the humanities. Yes, training a student to become a scientist is way more expensive than say English literature [as practiced – an English lit prof. reading this, I beg of you not to be offended, you are needed too]. And if you want rule 6 and 7 to work, a very high faculty to student ratio in mathematics, science and engineering is essential [the better advice to be had from local professors], but this does makes the cost of science and engineering more expensive. But understand higher tuition or fees or extra “laboratory fees” are a huge disincentive to study science or engineering. Students who study science or engineering are no better off, no richer than your English lit major. Pay attention to Rule 7. To those out there who are English and Econ professors: please make sure your science and engineering undergraduates can actually write as well as understand basic economic arguments – they really do need some of the basic lessons you can teach them.
Rule 9. Make sure there are lots of research experience opportunities for the science and engineering undergraduates, especially for the mediocre students. Sure, a smart and clever and imaginative science and engineering student can start a brilliant tech company, but an industrious mediocre student can take a professor’s great idea that he/she heard in the laboratory, and turn that into a successful tech company. Don’t overlook the mediocre science and engineering student. That industrious mediocre student may find the idea of a start up much more attractive than going into science, going to graduate school and becoming a scientist. In fact, the mediocre student may be mediocre because becoming a scientist or doing science is just not their thing, and they really are exceptionally bright: just the thing to lead a ‘start-up’. This is an important extension to rule 7.
Rule 10. The more science and engineering faculty within the University, the more ideas floating around that could become the next ‘tech idea’ for a great company. But the faculty have to be good to have ideas out there for the undergraduates to steal for a tech start-up. Have the University hire the best without regard to race, creed, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, and the ability to ‘dress well’. Invest in those faculty. A good engineering college at your university is going to cost more than $50 to $60 million a year. A politician who says they want an engineering college at their local university and only wants to pony up $30 million is an idiot. Better a good university, without a college of engineering, but with good science departments, than a bad university with a bad college of engineering. An under-funded college of engineering at your local university will lead to policies that break rule 8. I have seen really small, but excellent, 4 year colleges unwittingly nurture a student who goes on to build a really great tech company.
Rule 11. Business innovation grants are generally a waste of money. It doesn’t work that way. Small Business Innovation Research (or SBIR) program grants go to companies already established or companies set up to write proposals to compete for SBIR grants. Maybe it does happen, but I have never seen an SBIR grant help establish a successful tech start up. If you are trying to get a tech start up going, you don’t have time to write grant proposals, at least not a great proposal. Most SBIR grants (not all, but most) fund dubious crap. So any local politician who starts talking about local business innovation grants has no idea how this really works and must be deemed an idiot. Invest in getting a great coffee shop to your community (rule 3). Beside, I doubt your local politicians could tell the different between a good engineering idea and a bad one; sometimes I can’t either, and I know a little “tech’.
University administrators and local politicians who break rules 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and fail to understand any of the other rules should be forced to live on the median (median, not average) of local taxes paid by local tech start-ups in your neighborhood that are less than 4 years old. They must be required to use the Chronicle of Higher Education as toilet paper. Any university administrator or local politician who espouses the idea of “build it and they will come” regarding a tech park should be forced to pay all the local taxes that go to support your local convention center. Any sociologist who wants to send me a survey [I know, just 20 minutes of my time] to get my insights on how science is done, will get no answer unless they can help me find a solution to that pesky second order non-linear differential equation that has been bothering me all week.