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.