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What's the point of 'Boston vs. Silicon Valley'?

Posted by Scott Kirsner  March 2, 2011 04:42 PM

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I went to MIT for a lunchtime talk on Monday titled, "How Silicon Valley left Route 128 in the dust, and how Boston's entrepreneurs can help it catch up." The speaker was Vivek Wadhwa, a researcher and adjunct professor affiliated with UC/Berkeley, Harvard Law School, and Duke.

I wasn't expecting to be uplifted.

But I've also never heard as data-free a talk delivered inside a business school classroom. (I should have been prepared: Wadhwa is the same guy, after all, who wrote a 2009 TechCrunch article that concluded that Silicon Valley was the networking capital of the world because he'd received three invitations for three social events scheduled on the exact same night.)

Noting that he has been living in Silicon Valley for 18 months, Wadhwa sang the region's praises. People are not embarrassed to discuss their failures. "Silicon Valley is one giant social network." People are open and willing to discuss ideas even with potential competitors, forgoing the silliness of "stealth mode." People believe in the lean start-up methodology, and they don't get stuck trying to make a business plan spreadsheet come to life. He has had the chance to meet both Craig Newmark of Craiglist and Mark Zuckerberg. In person!

I've lived in the Bay Area, too (for longer than 18 months), and I agree that it's a wonderful place to start a company — and undoubtedly the technology center of the universe right now.

But what I found annoying were Wadhwa's pokes at Boston's stodgy, "pessimistic," old school culture, with zero data to back them up.

Representative was his assertion that learning how to write a business plan is irrelevant. (Do Berkeley and Stanford still teach students how to write business plans, I asked. Wadhwa dodged the question, saying some professors at those schools regard them as less important.) If business plans aren't important, then what are the great companies that have been built so far adhering to the lean start-up methodology? No examples. Could you build a biotech or energy company as a lean start-up, he was asked. Yes, he said, and lean start-up champion Eric Ries had even rattled off a list of examples to him, Wadhwa said, though he couldn't remember any of the names.

Wadhwa also took a dig at MIT's $100K business plan competition, contending that it had produced "no successful companies." Dan Vannoni, an MIT Sloan student who'd been an organizer of the competition, was sitting the front row, and he mentioned Akamai, the publicly-traded content delivery company that is today worth about $7 billion. Wadhwa said Akamai hadn't won the competition (it was a runner-up.) Vannoni asked about SmartCells, a company bought by Merck late last year for $500 million (after receiving only about $10 million in angel funding.) Wadhwa said he hadn't heard of the company.

Instead of business plan competitions, Wadhwa said that cities like Boston would be better to organize hack-a-thons. I noted that we'd just had one over the weekend. Did Wadhwa cite any substantial companies that have been spawned by hack-a-thons? No.

Just before he entered the classroom, Wadhwa had apparently spoken to two of the Sloan students who invited him to the school. When he asked them what they were working on outside of classes, they had both paused for a second. Wadwha concluded that it was because they were afraid of divulging sensitive competitive information to one another. In Boston, he said, "you don't share information. You're worried about competing." (He ignored the fact that both students said they were simply being polite and waiting for the other to go first.)

Later in his talk, he observed that "New York seems to be doing better than Boston... they seem to be doing something right." What was going on in New York that was so special? "I don't know the details," Wadhwa said.

His biggest back-handed compliment to Boston during the hour-plus talk was that "some stuff happens in biotech [in Boston], but not anything like the magnitude of what's happening in Silicon Valley."

After the talk, I sparred with Wadhwa on Twitter, sending him a link to a list of MIT $100k alumni companies that have done good. I asked him if he'd written any academic papers that might include data related to his generalizations about the Valley, Boston, and New York ecosystems. Wadhwa wrote, "I made it clear I was expressing opinion and sharing my views! The Valley did win…Sorry."

I obviously don't think it's worth debating the point that the Valley is the bubbling hot magma center of the technology scene right now. (Wadhwa, however, seems to make a living traveling the world making that banal observation to every other region, from Boston to Chile to Russia.) I just think that if you talk to a business school audience and make broad-brush statements about how one place tolerates failure more than any other, supports networking, has moved beyond the creaky, 20th century mentality of teaching business plan writing ... that you might want to bring some supporting data with you.

On Twitter, of course, the debate very quickly turned into "Boston versus Silicon Valley."

It was covered by peHUB, which posted a piece headlined, "Tweetfight: A Battle Over Boston Breaks Out." The New York Observer wrote a piece called "Bombs Over Boston: Vivek Wadhwa Flames Beantown Has-Beens." The Telegraph said, "'Over the hill' Boston tech community lashes out at academic."

My take on the whole dust-up:

- I think most people in Boston know there are things we can do better.

- I think most people realize that in the global economy, creating an ecosystem that supports innovation is not a zero-sum game. You can win without "beating" Silicon Valley.

- I think most people would acknowledge that one thing we do exceptionally well is support entrepreneurship in emerging areas, whether it's robotics or mobile advertising or new kinds of medical diagnostic tests.

- I think most people in town believe that the MIT $100K is a pretty powerful proving ground for new entrepreneurs and companies.

Finally, I think that everyone is sick of the "Boston vs. Silicon Valley" and "Boston vs. New York" conversations... most of all, me.

I'm interested in your comments...

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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