Tag Archives: Stanford

Stanford and Startups

Stanford is in the top2 universities with MIT for high-tech entrepreneurship. There is not much doubt about such statement. For the last ten years, I have been studying the impact of this university which has grown in the middle of Silicon Valley. After one book and a few research papers, here is a kind of concluding work.

A little less than 10 years ago, I discovered the Wellspring of Innovation, a website from Stanford University listing about 6’000 companies and founders. I used that list in addition from data I had obtained from OTL, the Stanford office of technology licensing as well as some personal data I had compiled over years. The report Startups and Stanford University with subtitle “an analysis of the entrepreneurial activity of the Stanford community over 50 years”, is the result of about 10 years of research. Of course, I did not work on it every day, but it has been a patient work which helped me analyze more than 5’000 start-ups and entrepreneurs. There is nearly not storytelling but a lot of tables and figures. I deliberately decided not to draw many conclusions as each reader might prefer one piece to another. The few people I contacted before publishing it here twitted about it with different reactions. For example:

Katharine Ku, head of OTL has mentioned another report when I mentioned mine to her: Stanford’s Univenture Secret Sauce – Embracing Risk, Ambiguity and Collaboration. Another evidence of the entrepreneurial culture of that unique place! I must thank Ms Ku here again for the data I could access thanks to her!

This report is not a real conclusion. There is still a lot to study about high-tech entrepreneurship around Stanford. With this data only. And with more recent one probably too. And I will conclude here with the last sentence of the report: “How will it develop in the future is obviously impossible to predict Therefore a revisited analysis of the situation in a decade or so should be very intersting.”

Stanford University, where Optimism Meets Empathy

People who know me well might be tired of my enthusiasm about Stanford University. My kids laugh at me, even some former professors do! Still, often, when I hear something about Stanford, it reminds me of the good old days. Not only. Stanford mostly looks at the future! I was reading yesterday night the Stanford Magazine and was attracted by two articles, which illustrate my nostalgia (and by the way, EPFL has some similar features today…):

– Stanford and Silicon Valley are not known for their interest in art. However, the university will open a new Art Gallery (close to the Rodin sculptures) on its campus, showing a major private modern art collection from the Anderson family. More in The Collection of a Lifetime

The New Anderson Collection building at Stanford University

– The President column also said very true things, such as “I’m often asked what sets Stanford apart. The university’s entrepreneurial spirit is certainly a distinguishing characteristic. But there is another vital component: the desire to make the world better for others.” Again one may laugh at this, but I really invite you to read “Optimism Meets Empathy” by John Hennessy.

John Hennessy
John Hennessy

Lessons from Billion-Dollar Start-Ups: Unicorns, Super-Unicorns and Black Swans.

A couple of colleagues informed me about Welcome To The Unicorn Club: Learning From Billion-Dollar Startups by Aileen Lee. I understand why. The article is closely connected to some of my main interests: high-growth start-ups and dynamics of entrepreneurs. Aileen Lee has analyzed start-ups in the Software and Internet fields which have reached a billion-dollar value while being less than 10 years old. She calls them Unicorns, whereas Super-Unicorns are companies which reached a $100B value!


All this reminds me of my analysis of 2700 Stanford-related start-ups (you can check Serial entrepreneurs: are they better? as well as High growth and profits) and to a lesser extent about the link between age and value creation: Is there an ideal age to create?

Aileen Lee has interesting results:
– out of 10,000+ founded companies per year, there are 4 unicorns per year (39 in the last decade – that is .07% of total) and about 1-3 super-unicorns per decade,
– they have raised more than $100M from investors (more than $300M for consumer-related). They may have been lean in their early days, but they grow fat!
– it takes 7+ years for an exit,
– founders have an average age of 34,
– they have 3 co-founders on average with a long experience together, often back from school,
– 75% of the founding CEO lead the company to an exit,
– many come from elite universities (1/3 from Stanford),
pivot is an outlier.

I found this article interesting, important, and I even felt empathy and let me tell you why. We have a tendency to underestimate the importance of hyper-growth and hyper-fast. Growth is extremely important for start-ups; reaching $100M in value is a success. Looking at the small group which reaches $1B and then $100B is interesting. You need money for this (VC), you do not need that much experience but you need trust from co-founders. The founders of super-licorns seem to be the explorer of unknown territories. You need passion and resources.


On Unicorns, I have done a similar analysis in “Is there an ideal age to create?” I also have an average age of 34 for 1st start-up experience of all founders, and regarding Super-Unicorns which I call Black Swans (highly unpredictable outcome according to Taleb), I have identified 10 Super-Unicorns (see below) and there are 1-4 such companies per decade since the 60s. The average age of their founders is 28 and even 27 if I count the 1st experience.

[My Black Swans – Ancestor: HP (1939); 60s: Intel (1968); 70s: Microsoft (1975), Oracle (1976), Genentech (1976), Apple (1977); 80s: Cisco (1984); 90s: Amazon (1994), Google (1998); 00s: Facebook (2004).
Age of founders: HP: Hewlett and Packard (27) – Intel: Noyce (41) and Moore (39) (but they had founded fairchild 11 years earlier). Andy Grove was 32 – Microsoft: Gates (20) and Allen (22) – Oracle: Ellison (33) – Genentech: Swanson (29) and Boyer (40) Apple: Jobs (21) and Wozniak (26) Cisco: Lerner and Bosack (29) Amazon: Bezos (30) Google: Brin and Page (25) Facebook: Zuckerberg (20) – Cofounder was 22.]

Now more data and statistics based on the Stanford-related companies. You can have a look first at my past slides and then I look at the Unicorn statistics.

Microsoft PowerPoint - BCERC-Stanford HTE-Lebret.ppt [Mode de co

Basic analysis of Stanford-related unicorns

Stanford unicorns by decade

Stanford unicorns by field

There are 3 super-unicorns in that group (HP, Cisco & Google). Out of 2700, there are 97 unicorns, which is a huge 3%! It probably means my sample is not exhaustive! Indeed Prof. Eesley estimates that 39’900 active companies can trace their roots to Stanford. This means now .2%. Now these are real exits whereas Lee includes private companies with no exit but a value provided by their investors. Whatever the ratio, unicorns are rare. Mine are less fat than Lee’s: they raise $30M with VCs.

I have less than 2 Stanford-related founders per company (but I do not count the ones with no Stanford link. It confirms Lee’s comment that many founders have roots back to school. It takes 8 years for an exit (fewer in recent years though) and 7 years for a graduate to decide about founding a company.

Unicorns and high-value creation is an interesting not to say important topic. Billion-dollar companies are not just a rare event, they tell us something about the impact of high-tech innovation & entrepreneurship. They are possible and desirable!

Stanford will invest in companies founded by students

“The prestigious American university Stanford will now invest in start-ups.” Thus begins an article in the newspaper Le Monde. The author, Jerome Marin, is rather negative about this decision, as the following quote shows: “The confusion is fueled even at the top of the university: the president has close ties with several giants of Silicon Valley, including Google as it is a member of the Board.” Without trying to argue, I think the reporter is misled.

Stanford va investir

But before I give you my point of view , I’d like to mention that I looked for other articles related to the topic, I found at least two :
– That of TechCrunch, close in spirit to Le Monde’s one, Stanford University Is Going To Invest In Student Startups Like A VC Firm. The article is also critical but I think better informed… and it also deals with the tension between the academic and business worlds. “That tension between academia and industry was highlighted this past spring when a number of students dropped out of school to start Clinkle”.
with references to another New Yorker article.
– The press release by Stanford University, StartX, Stanford University and Stanford Hospital & Clinics announce $3.6M grant and venture fund. If you read the statement carefully, it is about a gift from Stanford to StartX and a joint Stanford-StartX fund. StartX is an accelerator created by Stanford students and I understand that the University therefore supports this initiative. There is no mention, however, of a fund managed by Stanford as a VC fund.

The reason I think the reporter is mistaken is when he says that “Stanford will invest in companies created by its students”. As if it was new. Even if I agree that the stakes taken in start-ups in exchange for licensing of intellectual property is not an investment per se, Stanford still has acquired stakes in more than 170 of its spin-offs in the past . In addition the Stanford endowment has invested on an individual basis in many start-ups in the past (not to mention in many VC funds). For example, I found in a database I am building on Stanford-related companies, that Stanford invested in Aion (1984), Convergent (1980), Gemfire (1995), Metreo (2000), Tensilica (1998). Website LinkSv mentions Stanford invested in 143 companies. [I am aware there might be some confusion between investor and shareholder, so the topic remains somehow confusing].

Finally, in the 2000s, the Office of Technology Transfer at Stanford managed two funds, the Birdseed Fund (for amounts of $5k to $25k) and the Gap Fund ($25k to $250k) as shown the 2002 OTL annual report.

It is not at all new that Stanford invests in its start-ups. There has also always been tension, let’s do not deny it either. A little-known example of Cisco-Stanford early relationship. So nothing new under the sun. But you will not be surprised if I add that the overall result seems (is) extremely positive for all stakeholders, the university (including in its academic dimension), individuals, start-ups and the economy in general.

Stanford Impact via Entrepreneurship

My friend Jean-Jacques reminded me about this new study about entrepreneurship at Stanford University. Charles Eesley (who is also the co-author of the study on MIT impact) and William Miller have published it last October after surveying thousands of Stanford alumni. I was a little disappointed by the findings, but it might because I am biased (I work on the topic too, check my previous post on Stanford entrepreneurs) and also because I preferred the MIT study. But there is so much to say and analyze about Stanford! There are still very interesting data (see figures below), and it begins with the executive summary:

“The report […] estimates that 39,900 active companies can trace their roots to Stanford. If these companies collectively formed an independent nation, its estimated economy would be the world’s 10th largest. Extrapolating from survey results, those companies have created an estimated 5.4 million jobs and generate annual world revenues of $2.7 trillion.” [Page 6]

I also liked very much the small paragraph on risk-raking [Page 27]: When we asked Bechtolsheim whether taking on risks was part of the reason for his successes, he instead offered: “Risk is the wrong word. To me, Sun was a zero-risk startup because I knew there was a large market opportunity for this product. It was just about getting it out the door and selling it. Quite frankly, good startups don’t take on a lot of risk. They focus on making the right technology choices and product investments to go after significant market opportunitites. If you build the right product at the right time for the right market, success is much more predictable. That’s true even today.”

Now the figures I noticed, but there are many more: the initial capital raised by start-ups is high. It is consistent with my data on 190 public companies. The average value is $7.2M overall in my study and the median $3.0M (all fields included; the figures become $6.4M and $2.7M without biotech).


It is no news that many founders are immigrants. Here is a new illustration


Finally there is an interesting trend about how many years after graduation, alumni become entrepreneurs.


A Quiz to New 2012 EPFL Students

Each year, I have a small tradition of giving a start-up-related quiz to new EPFL students. Here it was:

I was in Helsinki last week and there, the chairman of Nokia gave a talk. “The world is in crisis and the only way we will solve our challenges is with creative people and entrepreneurs. […] Therefore entrepreneurship should be cherished, it is not a profession, it is a state of mind. […] Again it is a state of mind.”

EPFL 1st mission is teaching, its 2nd mission is research. Its maybe-lesser-known 3rd mission is innovation and technology transfer, which includes entrepreneurship. If you have creative ideas, we are here to support you. More on http://vpiv.epfl.ch/innogrants

To show you that that has been understood at the top of the best universities, both the President of Stanford University and the President of EPFL have been entrepreneurs, they have been the founders of 3 start-ups each. I will offer a bottle of champagne to the first student who sends me via email the names of these 6 companies. I am Herve Lebret and I support entrepreneurs at EPFL.

The answer may be found here, and more importantly, I will come back on Risto Siilasmaa’s talk – the chairman of Nokia.

Serial entrepreneurs: are they better?

Are serial entrepreneurs better than novices? This is a classical topic in entrepreneurship and it seems to me that urban legend says yes! There has been academic research going that way, with one major argument being that experience matters. However, I just finished my own analysis which I presented at the BCERC conference in Fort Worth (Texas). It is based on my previous work related to Stanford related start-ups: Stanford University and High-Tech Entrepreneurship: An Empirical Study (you can have a look here at the presentation and the article). The article on serial is available on the SSRN network and you can have a look at the presentation in pdf below.

click on picture to view the pdf slides

And the conclusion? I do not find evidence that novice entrepreneurs would be less performant. It is a “work in progress” but if you have a look at the slides, you might see it in particular on slides 7, 9 or even 20. Slide 7 shows average performances according to experience. Slide 9 (q-q graphs) sshows something else: serial founders would do worse with time. Finally slide 20 that serial successful in the past have a new success rate of about 28-29 % which is similar to novices (the novice figure is not on the slide), whereas serial who failed before have a lower success rate. As if talent mattered more than experience…

High growth and profits

Before I talk about the topic I announce in this post, let me mention briefly my coming back in the research world! I published a paper at the BCERC Babson Conference on Stanford high-tech start-ups. You may wish to go through the slides below.

I promise to come back to growth and profits and indeed there is a link to my own paper so be a little patient. But I need to mention one other thing before! The two keynote speakers were great.

First Ernesto Bertarelli, former CEO of Sereno and winner (and loser) of the America’s Cup with Alinghi gave a great 20-minute talk on entrepreneurship. Let me just quote him:
– in entrepreneurship, you need passion, fire and love, these are critical,
– you need a team, you can not win alone so you need to accept to hire better people than yourself and you need to accept change,
– you need vision, i.e. you need to visualize your plan and objectives,
– entrepreneurship = business, i.e. it is about taking chances, about asking yourself why should I not do it,
– if you’re sure to win, it’s boring; the risk of failing is OK and he was honest enough to show his two victories and then his defeat with Alinghi.
In summary, it is not so much a process it is about values.

Second Nicolas Hayek, founder and chairman of the Swatch Group, gave his views about entrepreneurship and business. He said basically the same things. Entrepreneurs are creative people and the pity (with our current crisis) is that we train managers who are not risk-takers, who are not creative people (or only for creative finance!). In fact, we kill creativity with our kids when they are 6-years old and business schools / MBA programs do not change this.

So now that I have mentioned typical keywords of entrepreneurship, (this above is not new at all, but the speakers were great and convincing), I can elaborate on the title of my post . At the Babson conference, there was a paper entitled “MUCH ADO ABOUT NEARLY NOTHING? AN EXPLORATORY STUDY ON THE MYTH OF HIGH GROWTH TECHNOLOGY START-UP ENTREPRENEURSHIP”

As you may imagine, I was shocked. I was discovering a totally new field of research exemplified by Per Davidsson. High growth would not be as important as profits. Said this way, I do not think anyone would disagree. If you are interested, you should read “Davidsson, P., Steffens, P. & Fitzsimmons, J. 2008. Growing profitable or growing from profits: Putting the horse in front of the cart? Journal of Business Venturing” (pdf manuscript here) if you have the restricted access.

The reason why I was shocked is that my experience with high-tech start-ups is that profits come later than sooner as you need to develop a product that no customer would pay for its development. So first you lose money, usually through funding by investors. Then you grow and generate profits.

Indeed Davidsson is not saying the contrary: in his paper, he states that “For external investors, our results imply that high growth in a low-profitability situation is a warning signal rather than an unambiguous sign of positive development. However, we must caution that our results do not necessarily apply to the much more select group of high-potential firms that VCs invest in. First-mover-advantage (FMA) reasoning suggests radical innovators who create entirely new markets play under different rules to the average SMEs. This said, the lack of proof that size leads to eventual profitability is something that has concerned the very researchers who coined the FMA concept: (Lieberman and Montgomery, 1998:1122). Similarly, in the specific context of disruptive innovation, Christensen and Raynor (2003) have argued forcefully for patience for growth but impatience for profit, a notion directly in line with our ‘profits first’ arguments and findings for SMEs more generally. In combination with our results, this provides sound reason for external investors to put more emphasis on establishing profitability through VRIO resources within their portfolio of firms, and having more patience for the growth that can eventually realize the full value of opportunities developed and pursued by these firms.”

So you could think I feel better. Not at all! The paper “Much ado about nearly nothing” by Malin Brännback, Niklas Kiviluoto and Ralf Östermark, from Åbo Akademi University, Finland and Alan Carsrud, Ryerson University, Canada seems to indicate similar results in high-tech to what Davidsson is stating for SMEs. More specifically, another paper, “Growth and Profitability in Small Privately Held Biotech Firms: Preliminary Findings” by Carsrud and his colleagues states that “A high profitability-low growth biotech firm is more probably to make the transition to high profitability-high growth than a firm that starts off with low profitability and high growth.” Well maybe there is no contradiction between my views and theirs. It might be that start-ups are about outliers and probabilities then are, yes, very low to succeed from low profitability. I am still convinced high value creation comes from there and still, I doubt you can focus on profits first, on growth second in high-tech start-ups. It is however an interesting topic which if true, entrepreneurs, investors, policy makers and researchers should know better about!

Any reaction?

The Google Story

This was the first chapter of my book! I have no real insider information about Google except my brief adventure with the Start-Up logo (that I use in this blog) when their people told me yes, no and finally yes about my right to use it. The book went out inbetween so it has a different cover but I obtained the right! I also failed in selling them a patent as they claimed they buy start-ups but not patents.

Still, I read so much about Google, it was sufficient material for my chapter but also for many presentations I made to students, entrepreneurs and in fact anyone interested in high-tech entrepreneurship and Google in particular… so after a few years of such presentations, I thought it was a good time to put online the Google Story which I hope you will find of some interest!

Lessons from entrepreneurs: not intuitive!

One of my favorite entrepreneurial web site, the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, just published its new batch of short videos.

The lessons are quite interesting as I found them not intuitive and quite uncommon:
– you do not have to work too much
– you should do what you love
– there are not rules.

So here is the first one: Great Ideas Derive from Well-Rested Minds. “Being a workaholic is no guarantee of success. David Heinemeier Hansson points out that 37signals’ main product, Basecamp, was created on 10 hours a week of development for a total of six months. When you’re overworked, you can’t think creatively.”

What about next: Do What You Like to Get Where You Want. “John Melo, CEO of Amyris Biotechnologies, enjoyed building oscilloscopes, circuits and transistors – and yet he was a college dropout. In this clip, Melo comments on his non-linear career path and how his passion, personal interest, and sense of independence have propelled him from one episodic position to another. He states that he first looked for opportunities to do the things he loved to do, and then focused on the places he wanted to be.”

Finally, Entrepreneurs Have No Rules. It also says: “Never give up the title of CEO… In many cases, it is the founder who is able to provide the vision to effectively direct product development.”