Surprisingly Successful Startup Hubs You Should Know About That Rival Silicon Valley
For decades, people having been dragging U-hauls cross-country to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Today people from all over the planet flock to the 94025 zip code not just to live in the shadow of companies like Facebook, Salesforce, Google, Apple and other billion dollar companies, but so that they can create their own billion dollar company.
But San Francisco isn’t the only place struck by startup fever. Other cities, states and nations have watched the Valley’s hyper-growth from a distance and today new innovation hubs are sprouting up all over the world.
Zibuyile Dladla, aged 28, is the creator and executive editor of ZAlebs.com in Johannesburg, South Africa. ZAlebs is a dynamic South African (Zud Afrika) pop culture site that focuses on celebrities, entertainment and the accompanying gossip.
ZAlebs is not only a great example of the community of young black South African women rallying around a brand — it is also the birthing of a national ethos. Following apartheid, young South Africans started peeling back colonialism to find their way back to their own voice and culture.
“We are so hungry for our own stories,” says Zibuyile Dladla, known to friends as Zee. “We make stories about people we can relate to, local artists that we know — not American or European celebrities.”
ZAlebs.com gets up to 40,000 visitors day, has over two million page views a month and the brand has over 160,000 fans on Facebook. ZAlebs also engages 30,000 Instagram followers, 27,000 followers on Twitter and 5,000 YouTube subscribers.
These numbers may not seem high compared to U.S. standards, but realize that European magazines and media sites in South Africa are a fraction of that — and declining rapidly. Meanwhile, Zee is quietly building a powerhouse.
In many ways, the entire African continent can be viewed as an incubator. People all over the world (from China and India to Nebraska) come to Africa to innovate everything from beehives to water treatment systems. Sometimes the things they drag into the African ecosystem do not survive; sometimes they discover they have to build roads to complete their supply chain.
As a recent Harvard Business Review article points out, basic thinking in distribution, resource management and post-colonial transitioning can be innovations on their own. The trick might be simply to use what’s already there.
“Use what you have and make it successful,” Zee Dladla agrees. “ZAlebs wouldn’t succeed if it was just a website — people had to see us on radio, TV, podcast. We had a two-minute T.V. show that explained the latest celebrity news, scandals, gossip. We were on a youth radio station.”
Becoming a multimedia platform pumped up Dladla’s thriving concept and attracted eyeballs who spent more time on brand.
Zee Dladla points to an even younger generation of people than herself — “Born Frees” (slang for people born in the Post-Apartheid area) — as the truly authentic entrepreneurs. “That generation is really practicing their muscle when it comes to startups,” laughs Dladla. “And they use social media.”
Websites like Z’khiphani, parody videos by Ok Wasabi and T.V. channel Mzansi Magic are delivering fresh African-bred content that reflects not only local entrepreneurial spirit and soul: They are defining a national identity.
“Young South Africans are starting to understand the importance of content creation,” points out Dladla. “There’s a huge need to create content in S.A., whether it’s television, movies, websites, radio, it’s proudly South African content.
“For us, by us,” says Zee.
Second in line is Israel, who claims to rank second as the most-innovative country on Earth. In fact, Israel can point to a list of innovations nearly as impressive as Stanford’s.
“The amazing thing is that no one has heard of them,” says Marcella Rosen, president of Untold News, a website devoted to Israeli innovation. “The tiny PillCam, fish farming, freezing breast tumors and curing major diseases. These should be headline news stories.”
A major Israeli breakthrough involves the most valuable natural resource on Earth: fresh water. Climate change makes drinkable water more and more valuable, so some innovators are looking to the world’s oceans.
In fact, Tel Aviv boasts the world’s largest seawater desalination plant. Through a unique reverse osmosis process, the Sorek plant located outside the city, turns salt water into 320,000 cubic meters of fresh water each day. That’s enough to quench 100,000 people.
Rosen reminds us that we’re not just saving the Earth, we’re saving ourselves.
Bees, which pollinate our fruit and vegetable crops, have been dying all over the planet (due in part to climate change and pesticide use) generically called colony collapse disorder (CCD). In fact, bees in the U.S. alone have been reduced by over 80%.
CCD is not a single disease, Israeli scientists have confirmed, but bucket various negative factors.
This means beekeepers must control a number of factors in the bee ecosystem. Israeli beekeepers often live near their hives, so they support healthy colonies through a campaign of identifying diseases quickly and maintaining sustained vigilance.
If these same methods were carried out globally, Israeli scientists point out, bees could have a higher survival rate.
Another significant Israeli innovation (there are many more listed in Rosen’s book Tiny Dynamo) is that medical engineers have invented an algorithm that uses machine learning to better detect breast cancer, which helps reduce misdiagnoses and false alarms.
From Israel, we pivot to Bucharest, Romania.
Romania has an amazing (and often unrecognized) background in mathematics, engineering, and innovation. The first turbojet engine was invented here and the area points to several Nobel Prize winners in biology and mathematics. Bucharest’s universities also feed candidates to Stanford and MIT.
So, not surprisingly, Bucharest has become a vibrant startup and innovation hub. In fact Fitbit, the leader in the connected health and fitness market, just acquired Romanian startup VectorWatch, less than one year after the Romanian innovators launched their first product.
“Today we see a rebirthing in technology and engineering,” says Ioan Iacob, chief executive officer of Bucharest-based Qualitance. The firm is ranked as one of Deloitte Technology’s Fast 50 companies and specializes in helping startups and big corporations transform revolutionary new products and services into next-gen technologies.
“There is a tremendous demand for engineering talent in Silicon Valley,” says Iacob, who worked at Adobe. “But Bucharest also has advantages.” What is happening in Bucharest, explains Iacob, is an example of what is happening in similar cities around the world: they are innovating against Silicon Valley’s pain points.
For example, while Silicon Valley is continually jibed for gender inequality, Bucharest has a solid history of providing high-paying jobs for women. “My mother and grandmother were both engineers,” declares Iacob. “We have incredible diversity. Thirty to 40% of our engineers are women.”
Another complaint about Silicon Valley is that the area is an echo chamber. “It allows people to be very in love with their ideas,” says Iacob. “If you get out of Silicon Valley, you can see other perspectives and other ways of seeing the world.”
Qualitance is also one of the few companies in the world to offer rapid prototyping plus production-level software.
“Innovation is not just about ideas, it is also the ability to take the product to market,” confirms Iacob. His firm claims over 200 engineers working on VR, Internet of Things, health tech, retail, digital platforms, with first-rate clients including IKEA.
“Idea entropy can happen quickly,” says Iacob. “So innovation needs to be even faster.”
Iacob and his team have become very hands-on and quickly turn around user-validated versions of the product, so they can be put on the street. Of course, that new product has to work. “We have experience with users, prototype ideas, then take that learning into production,” says Iacob. “It’s a very pragmatic way of thinking, bringing engineering and innovation together.”
Finally, there’s Boston, Massachusetts, an intellectual powerhouse packed with world-class universities. The Cambridge zip code is known for its massive number of patents and the ideas that originate from this region spawn new companies, grow into new industries, even new fields of study.
Companies like Biogen, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Genzyme, Akamai have emerged from the Boston area. Robert Langer, the most cited engineer in history, is located in Boston. MIT Media Lab, founded in 1985 by Nicholas Negroponte and Jerome Weisner, is an exploratory facility that claims responsibility for dozens of patents each year.
“It’s no surprise that a ton of basic science and fundamental innovation happens at MIT,” declares Cynthia Breazeal, founder and chief scientist at Jibo, Inc. Nicknamed the ‘Mother of robots’, Breazeal is also a former associate professor at MIT Media Lab. “We have an incredible intellectual brain trust across all colleges and universities,” say Breazeal.“Every region has their secret sauce and in Boston, it’s robotics and biotech.”
MIT Media Lab credentials include ‘Driving Assistant’ (a precursor to Google Street View), LEGO Mindstorms, a $100 laptop for school kids, the videogame “Rockband” — and E Ink displays that power the Amazon Kindle.
Perhaps most importantly, Oblong Industries fell out of MIT Media Lab. Oblong created the original digital screen used by Tom Cruise in “Minority Report” — which has been the inspiration for augmented reality, virtual reality, smartphones and Charlie Brooker, ever since.
Artificial intelligence (AI) originated on the East coast, and the technology business itself is intelligently evolving these days. It used to be that corporations would make large investments in commercializing AI-based technologies, but kept them closely guarded in order to turn a profit.
But today, such investments are integrated into SDKs and APIs by companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft so that third party developers and entrepreneurs can build AI capabilities into their products and services.
“A bunch of products on display at CES this year integrated the Alexa Voice Service, for instance,” says Breazeal. “This trend toward democratizing AI is fueling recombinant innovation that is turning machine intelligence into a commodity — that’s remarkable!”
These feats are enabling a lot of innovation right now, and Breazeal is optimistic. “There Summers and there are Winters in tech,” she smiles. “We’re in Summer again.”
These are just some examples of new geographies proclaiming themselves as smart cities, incubators, accelerators and pop-up startup hubs. Similar startup environments are being designed in Bristol, Brooklyn, Montreal, Nairobi, Chennai, Shenzhen, Madrid, Lisbon, ‘Silicon Beach’ in Los Angeles, Boulder and Berlin. Each has their own version of open-minded (more importantly — open sourced) centers, and there’s no question that Innovation is happening around the world.
Other cities and nations may be innovating, but Silicon Valley is not broken. California remains the epicenter of enthusiastic innovation and technology, with an ecosystem of venture capitalism that can be daunting.
The area has a knowledge base and interwoven strands of risk-taking investors and trusted relationships that goes back to when Hewlett-Packard (HP) wound copper coils. Stanford University, as just one example, can claim a direct line to over 5,000 successful companies including Nike, Apple, Gap and Google, and is one of many reasons why Silicon Valley still holds its own.
“It’s the most incredible minds in the world, all coming together in the same place and creating technology for the greatest change we’ve seen ever,” says one SV investor.
“The whole world is watching. Why would we want to go anywhere else, when we’re all right here?”