Austin is not Silicon Valley — but with time, it could be

Young. Smart. Weird. Three elements that make Austin the ideal melting pot for the start of a technological revolution. However, when we think of successful tech startups, we think of companies, such as Uber or Twitter, located in Silicon Valley, rather than Austin. Why? The answer sits in plain sight — students need to get involved. 

Endless opportunities exist for student involvement because of the University’s ideal location. Austin experienced a 41.4 percent jump in tech-industry employment between 2001 and 2013 and ranked as the top city for technology job creation, according to Forbes Magazine.

Nick Spiller, a UT alumus and co-founder of Longhorn Entrepreneurship Agency, believes the entrepreneurial spirit of Austin has been flourishing. 

However, Spiller feels the reason we don’t see as many brand-name companies coming out of Austin is because the city is too young.

“Silicon Valley dates back to the 1950s,” Spiller said. “If you look at the history of Austin’s innovation system, it dates back to the 1980s. It’s a matter of maturity.” 

Robert Metcalfe, co-inventor of the Ethernet cable and general partner of Polaris Venture Partners, acknowledges that history has a big influence, but Austin has what it takes to be successful. Metcalfe’s qualm exists in another realm.

“We need to think bigger,” Metcalfe said. “Our community thinks too small.” 

With a population of over 50,000, UT’s student body oftentimes establishes a box of limitations for itself. Because of this, all the innovation that should be seen, isn’t. UT has taken initiatives to eliminate these limitations and open the box. Longhorn Startup, which began in 2011, is a program that premises on helping students implement startup ideas. 

The program, which doubles as a class, functions in such a way that students with pre-existing ideas and companies partake in seminars with some of the world’s most renowned tech business people. At the end of the program, students pitch their ideas to investors on “Demo Day.”

James Nyfeler, a retired IBM inventor and mentor for Longhorn Startup, said he believes this helps the students experience the reality of the field. 

“The Demo Day is so real life, being able to pitch your company,” Nyfeler said. “You’re going to have to do that endlessly.”

Fruits of the program are appearing rapidly. We see this with Cerebri, a company that recently won IBM’s Watson University Competition, or Gray Matter, which created a mouth guard that helps trainers highlight athletes that could be at risk of concussion.

Now that UT has begun to fulfill its obligation to the students, the burden is now on us. We can have the top professors. We can have all the resources. In the end, however, every great contribution is contingent on one thing: our own initiative. If only we choose, we can run faster and reach our arms out farther, and we can be the catalyst for new innovation.

Mohammad Syed is a biochemistry freshman from Houston. He is a guest columnist.