Silicon valley may lose its edge: Report

Silicon valley may lose its edge: Report

Part of the toll on Silicon Valley has resulted from the recession. The region, the centre of the global technology industry, lost 90,000 jobs from the second quarter of 2008 to the second quarter of 2009. Unemployment is higher than national levels and the worst in the region since 2005, when technology companies were still recovering from the dot-com implosion.

The drop in the number of midlevel jobs — the engineers who drive much of the Valley’s growth — has been sharpest. And when companies do hire, they are cautiously hiring independent contractors instead of regular employees, and are hiring abroad, according to the “2010 Index of Silicon Valley” report, which was produced by the Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, two nonprofit groups.

Other economic indicators are also gloomy, the report found. “We show no evidence that the recovery has arrived,” said Chief executive of Joint Venture Russell Hancock.

One of the Valley’s measures of success — akin to the size of bonuses on Wall Street or box-office sales in Hollywood — has been the number of patents received and the number of initial public offerings of stock in technology companies. Patent registrations dipped slightly in 2008, and initial public offerings have dropped to the lowest levels since the 1970s.

VC funding

Venture capital financing of start-ups sank 37 per cent from 2008 to 2009. And vacancies in commercial real estate jumped 33 per cent.

The report’s pessimism is by no means the prevailing view in the San Francisco Bay Area, where stalwarts like Apple and start-ups like Twitter continue to pump out new products and new ideas. “Innovation continues unabated,” even though venture financing is difficult to raise right now, said Draper Fisher Jurvetson Founder Timothy Draper.

Still, if Silicon Valley’s traditional advantages weaken, residents may no longer be willing to put up with its ultra-expensive homes and poor public schools, said Institute for Large Scale Innovation Chairman John Kao.

Trauma of crisis

Even when the trauma of the financial crisis subsides, Silicon Valley will still be at risk because of deeper, long-term challenges, the report added.

Further. it siad sixty per cent of the region’s scientists and engineers are foreign-born, but foreign immigration to the region dropped 34 per cent over the last year. The home countries of foreigners are increasingly luring them back, while the US government’s policies have made it harder for them to stay. To combat the brain drain, California must do a better job educating local students, said Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy Director and senior economist Stephen Levy.

However, 5 per cent fewer high school graduates are meeting requirements for entrance to state universities, the number of science and engineering degrees has leveled off and state general fund spending on higher education dropped 17 per cent last year, according to the report.

Green technology

The report’s also said that green technology could be the way out of the region’s, and perhaps the nation’s, downturn. From 2006 to 2008, patent registrations in green technology in Silicon Valley increased 7 per cent. From 2004 to 2008, green jobs increased 24 per cent.

A green Silicon Valley would be a very different place than the current one, which was built on semiconductors and software and is now home to web innovators like Google and Facebook. Factories that once made chips would have to be revamped to make solar panels, and venture capital firms are unlikely to be able to provide enough money to build such capital-intensive companies, Hancock said.

With green technology, “it’s not whiz-bang software guys in garages, but utility-scale projects you must do with a federal partner,” Hancock said.

Silicon Valley’s poor economic health will affect the nation as a whole, said Judy Estrin, former chief technology officer of Cisco Systems and author of the book “Closing the Innovation Gap.”

“Silicon Valley is both a barometer of the rest of the country and a spark for the rest of the country, and if we don’t protect that innovation culture here, it’s going to be hard to sustain an innovation culture in the country,” she said.

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