Va Corporate Park

The Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center is a science park at the Blacksburg campus.

Is the next Google in Blacksburg? No. And the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center will not be the next Silicon Valley.

That’s because there won’t be a next Google and there won’t be a next Silicon Valley, according to the “Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2019,” a study produced by a San Francisco nonprofit that analyzed the economies of 150 metro areas around the world to determine which ones are the best places in which to launch a new company or move a growing one.

Instead, there will be 30 of them. We just don’t know which 30.

Here’s a useful comparison: Today there are five cities that, in terms of venture capital funding, are where Silicon Valley was in 1998, the year that Google was founded. They are New York, London, Beijing, Boston and Shanghai. The report says that Los Angeles and Tel Aviv aren’t far behind. “In 1998, Silicon Valley looked like an impossible-to-reach benchmark,” the report says. Two decades later, five and maybe seven cities have. So it’s not unreasonable to look another 20 years out and see lots more places growing into what we think of now as Silicon Valley-like status.

The report listed today’s top 30 cities for technology start-ups, all of which would be likely candidates for those next Silicon Valleys. Of those, only 12 are in the United States — another sign of how the world’s economy is changing. The report also listed a dozen other cities that “have a real shot” at breaking into the Top 30.

Not a single one of those is in the United States. If the 20th century was the American century, the 21st century likely won’t be. American policymakers might want to ask why only so few American cities make the list — and places such as Singapore and Bangalore do.

Those future Silicon Valleys also won’t look much like the current one in another key way: It won’t be producing the same kind of companies. This is an important point because lots of communities spend their time trying to be “the next Silicon Valley.” To understand why that’s unrealistic, consider this quote from Peter Thiel, an entrepreneur of some renown: “The next Bill Gates will not start an operating system. The next Larry Page won’t start a search engine. The next Mark Zuckerberg won’t start a social network company.”

His point: The next innovation won’t be a copy of something, it will be something different. So what will be the next big thing — at least sector-wise? The report lists the four fastest-growing sectors of the new tech-based economy and this is where things get more interesting for us, because the New River Valley has connections to all four of them. The next Google won’t be in Blacksburg, but the next Something Else could be.

OK, maybe Blacksburg won’t dislodge Beijing or Boston or the other cities on the Top 30 list — but it does have a realistic shot at growing companies in these four high-growth sectors: advanced manufacturing and robotics (108% growth worldwide in the past five years), blockchain software technology (101.5%), agricultural tech (89%) and artificial intelligence, big data and analytics (64.5%).

Together, these four fields are often lumped with others under the general heading of “deep tech,” officially described as “disruptive technologies based on scientific discoveries, engineering, mathematics, physics and medicine.” The report says nearly half of the start-ups being created globally are in “deep tech” — twice the share from just seven years ago.

The essence of “deep tech” — like most other technologies — is that it’s disruptive to existing business models. It’s also potentially disruptive to economies, as well.

“The rise of Deep Tech provides a real opportunity for ecosystems to grow based on their existing strengths,” the report says. “Places that would not be anywhere close to the top ecosystems in software have the potential to build a thriving startup economy leveraging their universities, research capacity and traditional economy strengths.”

That sounds a lot like us. Blacksburg won’t become Bern, Switzerland — ranked as the world’s No. 22 technology hotspot on the strength of its “deep tech” companies. But it could be a very different Blacksburg than the one we know today.

— Adapted from The Roanoke Times

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