Silicon Valley’s increasing focus on hard tech like biotech, health, energy and other areas that require extensive research is a departure from its typical lean, fail-fast software-focused model.
Sam Altman’s recently announced $10 million research initiative, Andreessen Horowitz’s $200 million biotech fund, and the growing attention paid to hard tech in accelerators like Y Combinator indicate a realization on the part of Silicon Valley leaders that these technologies are the wave of the future. Though current biotech and hardware development is partly driven by advances in software development and computing capacity, scientists and researchers still face the fundamental problem that sound development requires a longer term model suitable to scientifically validated products.
Most Silicon Valley startups use a methodology that emphasizes going to market quickly and constantly iterating to find consumer fit. The cost of iteration is small, and startups have relatively small numbers of employees and low levels of funding in the development phase. Once they do find market fit, they often attract enormous investment to fund spectacular growth to ensure they become functional monopolies. Breakneck development, constant trial and error to iterate quickly, low initial costs and then huge expenditure to fund growth on market fit, that is the Silicon Valley model.
This model does not work where scientific validation is key. The most potentially lucrative areas of biotechnology and life sciences require a foundation of research that has been the métier of universities and independent research organizations. Basic research is costly and long-term, but is necessary for the development of safe, scientifically validated products. Once such research produces valuable ideas, they need to be identified by a proficient tech development team. A company intent on commercially developing the product needs to spend time and funds on proof of concept and scientific validation, and often an FDA regulatory cycle. This is not a rapid iteration process. Only at the time of market entrance and scale does the process track with the Silicon Valley model.
In contrast, San Diego culture is steeped in this process. Scientific validation is fundamental to a biotech-focused ecosystem. What has not been created is our ecosystem to develop and fund companies at an early stage. This is the mission of HardTech Labs – we solve the problem of ensuring scientific validation by partnering with a top independent research institute, locating our health and wellness focused accelerator in their facilities in the UCSD Science Research Park.
This collaboration with the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology (LJI), combined with funding and a complete workspace with hardware labs and access to biotech research facilities for our portfolio companies at LJI supports complex biotech, hardware and software integrations in health and wellness, agriculture and other areas. HardTech Labs’ companies can focus on validating their research, developing products and getting to market expeditiously. By starting with the validation, we ensure that products are solid before they are taken to the market in the growth phase.
What is most powerful is that San Diego can focus on its strengths in hard tech, and build companies that will be ready for the expertise that Silicon Valley provides – growth capital and go to market strategies. Together we can create an ecosystem that compliments each regions’ strengths – resulting in a vibrant landscape rich with successful start-up companies.
Derek Footer is CEO and Managing Partner of HardTech Labs, a fund and manager of HardTech Labs Life accelerator, a joint venture with the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, focused on health and wellness companies developing biotech, hardware and software products in the San Diego/Baja region.