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Left Coast/Right Coast: Tradition! (or is it just inertia?)

This column should is about the nature of East Coast vs. West Coast intellectual capital. Intellectual capital equates human resources and the thinking behind it.
Mike Gold is a retired entrepreneur providing his views on the Northwest. Photo credit: Katie Stearns.

Mike Gold writes for the News of Mill Creek on a regular basis. He is a retired entrepreneur and describes himself as a, “relatively recent transplant to the West Coast. I have lived (born and raised) in the Northeastern U.S. So these observations are based upon ‘living the dream’ in the Pacific Northwest.”

This column should raise some questions to ponder about the very nature of East Coast vs. West Coast intellectual capital. By intellectual capital I mean the human resources available and the thinking behind it in both regions of the country.

New Englanders are inherently snobbish when it comes to the people in that region. I think it starts with Harvard and the over 100 other institutions of higher learning (both colleges/universities and private secondary schools) in the area. Their thinking is something like this, “We invented higher education.”

Although this is debatable as there are a number of institutions of higher learning that are much older than the northeastern United States. The Italian University of Bologna, with founding date of 1088, is considered the first and oldest university. In England, Oxford University, circa 1167, and Cambridge University, circa 1209, are another pair. By comparison; Harvard, circa 1636, is a relative newcomer.

This does not matter to New Englanders. There is a clear “stiff upper lip” that New Englanders carry around with them about the intellectual horsepower of the region. An example of this are the old eating clubs at Harvard which are stuffy as all get out.

And if you dare broach this subject, you will get a “prim and proper” response, “Well, old man, one can’t (pronounced ‘caawnt’) argue that we were first.” And they argue, “Best.”

Best at what? I’ve written before about the high technology corridor surrounding greater Boston called  Route 128 (actually now part of Interstate-95). Route 128 came to be well before Silicon Valley flourished. And some of the oldest technology companies call (or called) Route 128 home. Included are:

If you look carefully at this list, you can see quite a bit of “rust” on many of these names. Some are gone completely.

I worked in this region and I recall Ken Olsen (founder of Digital Equipment Corporaton) commenting on the initial appearance of the personal computer. DEC (its shortened name) made its fortune in the mini-computer business by providing much smaller and cheaper computers in place of the larger mainframe computers. He thought personal computers were a joke. DEC was acquired by Compaq Computer (a personal computer company), which was then in turn acquired by Hewlett Packhard (a West Coast high-tech firm also a personal computer manufacturer).

This brings to mind a famous quotation, "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.” This is one of Satchel Paige’s famous quotations. He was a famous African American baseball pitcher who was among the earliest to break the color barrier in major league baseball (of course Jackie Robinson was the first in the National League and Larry Doby was the first in the American League).

Now Route 128 still has outstanding entrepreneurs. Nick Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, one of the most outstanding high-tech “think tanks” in the world) – also created its forerunner, called the Architecture Machine Group. ArcMac (its nickname) did ground breaking work in man-machine interfaces.

One of their early projects was the gerbil machine.” This work was done in the 1970s! They put a bunch of gerbils inside a Plexiglas enclosure filled with kid’s toy-blocks. They watched as the gerbils built their own custom habitat out of these blocks – the ArcMac computers interpreted what they were trying to do and assisted them - studying how animals created their preferred living structures. Ground breaking work.

Negroponte went on to found  One Laptop per Child, an attempt to bring a $100 computer to the underprivileged children of the world. This machine, among its other advanced features, has a machine to machine network – so that in an area without Internet access, the machines can work from machine to machine across a wide geographic area and connect all machines via a single machine that does have Internet access. It also has a “wind up” back up power source for those places without electricity. Their goal of a $100 computer has yet to me met, but they are getting close with prices now at approximately $200 per unit.

Oh, Stanford University (in Palo Alto – heart of Silicon Valley) was just named  top University in the U.S. by Forbes Magazine. This is the first time ever a non-ivy school (and a West Coast one to boot) earned this honor. I wonder what those intellectuals in New England would say about this. Probably something like, “Oh, Harvard and the other Ivies are still ahead of that West Coast place according to U.S. News & World Report.”

My take: At one time the Northeastern United States was the birthplace of many of the earliest high-tech firms (see list above). Silicon Valley (and the rest of the Western United States) has grown up starting with the integrated circuit companies (Intel). As the computing world migrated from discrete component circuit boards (which made up the earlier computers) to “computers on a chip,” the seminal work migrated to Silicon Valley.

It was inevitable that other “application” companies would be drawn there to be close to the chip suppliers. Like many emerging technologies, some of the earlier suppliers either had to re-invent themselves, or were acquired, or went bust. I find one this is one of the most interesting things about high-tech. So many of them get blindsided by newer emerging technologies. (Satchel Paige – a true savant).

I just started my eighth computer company here in greater Seattle (the first seven were founded in New England). Frankly, the intellectual capital in this region is easily equal to what I’ve found in New England. In fact, with modern technology solutions (such as LinkedIn), you can find virtually any labor resource you’re looking for – and often it is in overseas locations (Russia, India and other locations for high-tech talent). Many modern high-tech start-ups are virtual companies. No large central headquarters locations. Resources deployed all over the globe – linked via the Internet. Very cost effective. My take on this subject is that with the world being much more closely connected, intellectual resources can be anywhere. Want to sit on the beach in Fiji? You can and still be a high-tech start up person.

Inertia is the only enemy here. Europe was far ahead of the fledgling United States in an advanced society. Why did the United States forge ahead? Inertia! A good friend did some graduate work at Oxford in England. He told me a story about his first week there circa 1965. They sharpened their pencils with a knife. He couldn’t understand this and asked, “Why not put in a pencil sharpener?” He was told, “We’ve always done it this way.” Tradition! – I can hear Zero Mostel singing in "Fiddler on the Roof."

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