They say the soul of Silicon Valley is reflected in the billboards scattered along the 45-mile stretch of Highway 101 that cuts through...
MENLO PARK, Calif. — They say the soul of Silicon Valley is reflected in the billboards scattered along the 45-mile stretch of Highway 101 that cuts through the region. During the dot-com era, the messages were mostly from such startups as Excite.com, Homestead.com and eGain.com. The goal was to sell you something, anything.
Today the signs have changed. “End World Hunger,” urges one billboard. Another promotes a campaign to aid the mentally disabled. A third features a smiling portrait of the men and women of the California Air National Guard 129th Rescue Wing, who “keep America safe, secure and free.”
Ten years after the Aug. 9, 1995, initial public offering of Netscape Communications set off the Internet boom and five years after the bust, venture capitalists are leading a push to remake Silicon Valley as a center for a new form of social entrepreneurship and venture philanthropy, where you can make good money by doing good.
While plenty of people here still are out to make fast bucks, there’s also been a surge in investments aimed at solving some of the world’s most formidable problems. Venture capitalists chastened by the bursting of the bubble say they want to make a mark beyond the next quarterly filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
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A decade ago, scientist Eric Nyberg had what he thought was a breakthrough technology. Working out of his garage, he invented a low-cost, low-energy method for purifying water. It was all but impossible to get the attention of dot-com-crazed investors.
A few months ago, Nyberg’s company, Pionetics, began soliciting investments again. This time it was inundated with offers and had to turn some down. The company, which aims to help stop the spread of waterborne disease in underdeveloped countries, raised about $6.4 million in funds from seven firms.
“People are looking to have more meaning in their lives,” said John Doerr, a partner at über-venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. “It is a sign the technology community is coming of age.”
Doerr became famous for funding some of the Internet’s biggest success stories, as well as some of its most spectacular failures. These days he focuses mostly on health-care and energy companies.
Halfway down 101 is the geographic, philosophical and emotional center of Silicon Valley: Sand Hill Road, where the region’s most prestigious venture-capital firms are based and where countless entrepreneurs’ dreams are either made reality or crushed.
It is in these offices where the transformation is most acute. Instead of waiting at desks as the business plans flow in, many venture capitalists are trolling university labs for inventions. More than a few firms these days keep their venture-capital investments a secret, allowing companies the ability to concentrate on their research without public scrutiny.
Many of the new entrepreneurs are technologists, not MBAs — signifying a new emphasis on products over profits.
“The thinking today is, ‘I don’t care as much how much of a Harvard MBA or super-experienced CEO or whatever you are or how much money you’ve raised,’ ” said Philip Kaplan, founder of an infamous Web site that mocked the deaths of thousands of dot-coms.
He said businesses have to be “cool.” He works at a startup that sells online ads to corporations but provides them to nonprofit organizations for free.