Venture Capital and Accelerators on Sand Hill Road

SC linac FEL

Mention the words accelerator specialist on Sand Hill Road and you’ll likely get very different responses depending on which side of the road you’re standing on.

On the venture capital side it will automatically be assumed you mentor small companies and guide them from the startup phase through to IPO, and if you do it right the end result could be worth billions.

On the opposite side of Sand Hill Road is the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory where an accelerator specialist is someone who builds the monster machines designed for whizzing subatomic particles up to light speeds and smashing them together.

But does a laboratory boasting over 50 years of Nobel Prize winning physics research with accelerators have anything in common with its ‘upstart’ venture capital neighbors on Sand Hill Road?

The answer is an emphatic yes, even though at first glance the two cultures seem vastly different. At SLAC the government funded researchers can be seen passing through the front gates at all hours, driving perhaps a modest Subaru or pickup truck, while their neighbors cruise past behind the darkened windows of German and Italian luxury sedans. On Friday afternoons while the VC crowd gathers at the Rosewood to sip on $20 drinks the SLAC engineers are more likely to head to the Dutch Goose for a pitcher of beer and the free peanuts.

The livelihood of both cultures, though, relies on innovation and risk taking. It may take years to build a new and bigger machine at SLAC, coaxing it to operate at new frontiers of discovery. The challenge to venture capital is to provide sufficient support for an emerging technology, nurturing it and creating a product in the process that will generate a whole new market where none even existed before.

George Doriot is the acknowledged father of venture capital after his initial $70,000 investment in Digital Equipment Corporation in 1957 earned him $355 million when the company went public in 1968. During that same era physicists in the Hansen Lab on the Stanford campus were proposing Project ‘M’, for monster. The Stanford Linear ACcelerator became the world’s largest linear accelerator at two miles long, and has yielded countless scientific discoveries.

In the meantime Sand Hill Road has grown up to become the new Wall Street of the West Coast, where the cost of office space per square foot is now the highest in the nation. If you want to be in the venture capital game you have to have an address on Sand Hill Road.

Stanford encouraged its engineers and scientists to take their ideas and inventions out into the market place and actively facilitated the investment in those ideas. The result, of course has been the resounding success of Silicon Valley, so it is no surprise that a world class accelerator physics laboratory lives side by side with the investors and incubators of new technology.

The disparity in lifestyle between the well-heeled VC crowd and the more academically inclined researchers at SLAC may occasionally raise eyebrows, but as a side note it does provide a wonderfully rich setting for creating fictional stories about Sand Hill Road, which you can also find here.

So the next time you’re in either the Rosewood or the Dutch Goose try asking someone what they know about accelerators. You may be surprised by the answer.

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