Silicon Valley Tech Trek: Seeing the Ecosystem

Professor Michael Roach

Over the past few years, Tech Treks have been growing in popularity. Perhaps you have heard of these trips to areas like Boston, but what exactly are they? And what value do they have for young entrepreneurs? Recently, Professor Michael Roach took a group of Ph.D. students to Silicon Valley to explore the ecosystem. They visited StartX, Canaan Partners, Y Combinator, and attended the Cornell Silicon Valley Alumni Conference. Additionally, the NIH-BEST Program and the College of Engineering sponsored the trek.

The trek included a visit to StartX, Stanford’s off-campus incubator. Here, the students on the trip were given the opportunity to speak with three founders of hardware companies. Also, they spoke with early employees of these startups. As Colin Jermain, a student participant, explains, “the goal of the trek was to speak with founders and employees to understand the ecosystem”. By engaging with these participants, Cornell’s Ph.D. students were given a first-hand look at working in Silicon Valley. After the StartX visit, the students headed to Canaan Partner’s, a VC firm, where they met Eric Young (BSME ’78), a fellow Cornellian and partner at the firm. During their discussion, the Ph.Ds. were able to see the entrepreneurship ecosystem from the perspective of investors and ask questions they wouldn’t be able to in a campus setting.

The second day began at Y Combinator, where they toured the facilities and met with Luke Iseman, entrepreneur and “Hardware Guy” at YC. Once again, the students were able to ask questions and see first-hand how entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley operate. The CSV Conference followed the YC visit, where Professor Roach moderated a panel discussion on academic entrepreneurship featuring two Cornellian PhD entrepreneurs, Molly Morse and Diego Rey, as well as Johnson MBA Jason Springs. At the conference, students met a variety of Cornell alumni in the area and heard many interesting and relevant speakers.

The participants on the trek each had a unique takeaway, but the key points were perspective, understanding the ecosystem, and building a network. Felix Litvinsky, the Managing Director of Blackstone LaunchPad at Cornell, articulates that without actually visiting an area like Silicon Valley, it is impossible to truly understand the “micro climate”, a necessity to operating in the area. Furthermore, he says that “exposure is critical to understanding and communication” throughout the valley. Levon Atoyan, current president of TEC and a student participant, found a “big difference between going to one event and meeting many different groups in the value chain”. On campus, we see just one point of view, but in Silicon Valley, the participants saw how everything fit together. Levon knows he “could not understand the ecosystem without actually seeing it”. Finally, the network, and maintaining this network, was key. Colin remembers, he “made lots of useful connections on the trip”, and he will work to maintain them. Perhaps most importantly, as Professor Roach sums up, “The students get access to mentors and advisors through trips like this”. These mentors are essential to any successful entrepreneur, and they have the potential to help these Ph.D. students as they move forward in their careers.

Attending a Tech Trek gives Cornell students a chance to see what entrepreneurship beyond the hill is like. The perspective, understanding, and network that come from these trips can be essential to future to development, and can help young entrepreneurs build or join successful companies.