Blog Post

If you think Silicon Valley can’t innovate, you’re not looking hard enough

I have recently read two posts that point to lack of innovation in Silicon Valley. Sam Altman (a founder of Loopt) wrote a pretty persuasive essay on his blog called, “What happened to innovation”. He looks at the venture investment trends and points to declining risk tolerance among Silicon Valley investors.

Here is a tiny excerpt, but read the original in its entirety:

…what’s happened is that innovative energy has mostly been directed to short-timeframe opportunities in software.  This is at least mostly rational—honestly, over the last few decades there have just been way more successes in the computer industry than in biotech, cleantech. And now we get to the fundamental issue with innovation today. People—founders, employees, and investors—are looking for low-cost (and virtual is lower cost than physical), short-term opportunities.

Elsewhere, Slate technology writer Farhad Manjoo noted, in his piece, “Attack of the Clones”:

Instead of invention, many in tech have fallen into the comfortable groove of reinvention. These days, the sad status quo means slapping a new icon on a mobile app and proclaiming it to be the second coming.

Kevin Systrom Instagram Facebook videoManjoo & Altman are right and wrong at the same time. I don’t disagree with the basic thrust of their arguments that there is a certain near-termism and me-tooism. In fact, it is something we have talked about many times.

What I disagree with is the handwringing about innovation. Why? because they are looking at the world through a very narrow lens of consumer applications and platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Android and Apple’s iOS.

When I look at the technology ecosystem, I look far and wide. I take off the covers and peek inside. I marvel not just at Instagram, but I marvel at innovation that Apple has packed inside the iPhone and its laptops. Did you know that Apple has employed some of the top material scientists who work with other Apple engineers and help craft together the MacBook Pro or the iPhone 5? The material science isn’t all that exciting to some but to us it isn’t incremental work (and we just hired a writer to follow those developments). I look at those videos Apple puts out about how its computers are made, and I get excited — because I see old fashioned engineering & tinkering at work to make my computing experience even more beautiful.


And why stop at Apple? A chip company that is rethinking the mobile phone camera — innovative or not innovative? A company using artificial intelligence to bring about predictive computing… innovative or not innovative? How about that chip startup that has come up with a new way of making chips that sip instead of gulping power. Is that interesting and innovative?


Yesterday, at our Structure 2013 conference, Narges Bina Asadi talked about her company, Bina Technologies — which is making a high performance computing appliance that is used for genonmic analysis that will eventually result in customized treatments and data-driven insights tailored to you and I.

I find these companies innovative, but you decide for yourself. I know none of these companies are sexy like Instagram or have the 30-seconds-to-get-it factor, but they are important. The reason why people talk about a lack of innovation in Silicon Valley is because we have become used to looking at our ecosystem through a single lens — the more popular, more easy to grok world of consumer apps.

So if you say that business resembles a dried sewer in a shanty town, then I am with you.

10 Responses to “If you think Silicon Valley can’t innovate, you’re not looking hard enough”

  1. Why look at Silicon Valley for innovation? Regarding Bina Technologies, today new technology from The Netherlands has been approved by one of the world leaders in Agriculture.

    Alignment of WGS Cultivated Tomato in 12 minutes instead of 5,2 hours (BWA) with an accuracy of 98,6% on only a few cores, leaving a file size of 1,6GB instead of 88,6Gb (BWA) might be considered as game changing technology, right?

    This company will shake the world when it comes to Genomics and Big Data analysis

  2. There is a lot of innovation happening in Silicon Valley. However, the coverage of such innovation often gets overshadowed by the over saturated coverage of such things as Instagram now supporting video (is 15-seconds versus 6.5 seconds and filters really innovation)? It’s no surprise that people can become cynical about Silicon Valley when there is a lot of hype on little things that are directly consumer oriented, and not as much on the slightly more esoteric.

    • It is a fair point – I think we have seen this play out before. More coverage of video games, dot com companies and Web 2.0 stuff — all because they are easy to grok by the media and also most importantly much bigger readership base — I think that essentially is what we are seeing is a repeat of that pattern.

  3. realjjj

    Innovation equals risk taking and many listed companies are afraid of it.
    By giving just a few examples you “are looking at the world through a very narrow lens” too.
    Even your examples are startups (that can only make it by taking that risk) and Apple,but you aren’t objective about Apple. Truth is Apple does very little. In calendar 2012 Apple invested in R&D 3.633B on a revenue of 164.7B so R&D was 2.2% of revenue and that is ridiculously low. In the same period, calendar 2012, Qualcomm put in R&D 4.148B on a revenue of 20.46B so 20.275 % of rev went into R&D. Apple is just packaging and marketing ,the real innovation is elsewhere.
    Parts makers do innovate more, the biggest problem is in consumer where it’s more difficult to market and the risk is a lot higher. There could be a lot more innovation and a lot faster.
    The adoption of new technologies is also stifled by greed a lot of times and that slows the entire world down by quite a lot.

    • realjjj

      I wish you would actually do a lot more digging into Apple’s R&D efforts before dismissing what they do. They are highly focused on R&D that benefits their business. They are doing some interesting things with manufacturing of the devices, the material science and other stuff that is beneficial to them/their business. And I don’t know, but $3.7 billion is a lot of money.

      I don’t want to get into a religious argument about Apple and Android or whatever. Instead, let’s just see it for what it is — spending on R&D that is beneficial to their customers and hence their business. Qualcomm does precisely that — spending money on things that is important to their customers. They make chips. Apple makes computers. Those are two different lines of business. Want to compare? Perhaps Dell would be a good comparison. Or Lenovo? Or just the Phone/Tablet/Computer business of Samsung, which is essentially the closest and the best rival to Apple in the world today?

  4. srikanth

    I still think that Intel is doing the hard job in the fab which is going unnoticed by the press. Shrinking is becoming increasingly difficult and there is some real rocket-science is going on there…

  5. Nevertheless, news # 1 is 15 sec video on Instagram, because this news is comprehensible my majority of ad consumers. Genome sequencing is beyond comprehension of 99% of eye balls .

  6. I have found a correlation between those who bleat on about lack of innovation and those who are just unimaginative. One of my favorite Edison quotes sums things up succinctly.

    “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work”

    Few look at the innovation that is happening at the “overall” level.