Clearly, Dr. Dre Never Founded a Tech Startup: RTP & Silicon Valley

If you had asked me two months ago (during my scrupulous search for summer employment) whether I’d rather take a job in California or North Carolina, my answer would have been instantaneous. I mean, one of those places is home to Silicon Valley and the other… well… isn’t.

I’ve always viewed California with a sense of marvel. It’s “The Golden State,” the birthplace of companies like Google and Apple, and the home of my former dream college, Stanford (thanks for crushing that one, out-of-state tuition). And who can resist the lure of the west coast’s idyllic weather, scenic beaches, and picturesque landscape? Perhaps esteemed lyricist Dr. Dre said it most eloquently: “[California is] a state that’s untouchable, like Eliot Ness.”

But in hindsight I blame the majority of my partiality to Silicon Valley on my ignorance of what lay elsewhere. To make a long story short, in April I landed a job working for a start-up in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park (RTP), and before I knew it found myself living and working in The Bull City (for those Mad Men fans out there, I actually live in a building that’s a five minute walk from the Lucky Strike water tower).

In retrospect, like most good things that happen in life, I could not be more thankful that fate brought me here. I’ve spent the last two months working for an incredible young company in a vibrant and unique start-up community—a community that not only has a very distinctive personality, but seems to be quite comfortable as an up and coming start-up incubator on the East Coast. No, it’s certainly not Silicon Valley, but from what I can see RTP is not trying to be.

Granted, I should probably take a second to acknowledge that on many levels it is unfair to directly compare RTP to Silicon Valley, as they have entirely different start-up ecosystems. Silicon Valley has the kind of established environment needed to support and scale the rapid growth of companies like Intel, Adobe, and Yahoo. They’re a breeding ground for billion dollar companies. RTP: not as much (as of yet, anyway). However, even though many of the Triangle start-ups in this area may never reach the status of Google or eBay, this certainly doesn’t mean that a great deal aren’t on the fast track to developing innovative products and services that will change the world (and perhaps lead to some lucrative exits along the way).

As a result, as anyone closely following the start-up community in this area will confirm, the Triangle has continued to see larger and more frequent investments from VC firms over the past few years. And this trend seems to be continuing.  So while there is undoubtedly more money out in Silicon Valley, that is certainly no reason to overlook the infusions of capital that are occurring in RTP. In short, what this means for young and aspiring entrepreneurs is that one may no longer have to “go west, young man,” in order to prosper.

And how about the talent pool? It’s quite common to hear that the best and brightest entrepreneurs are coming out of Stanford and other California based schools. But just like Silicon Valley has a great many colleges and universities to draw upon for fresh talent and spirited innovation, RTP has a handful of phenomenal schools right in its own backyard: Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, NC State, and Wake Forest, just to name a few. Not to mention that when one compares the cost of living, it’s no wonder more cash-strapped students aren’t attracted to settling down somewhere within RTP. Trust me, I speak from experience on this one. And let’s not even talk about the commute. I highly doubt I could find an awesome place to live anywhere in California that was a four minute drive from my office.

All other factors aside, I think the greatest thing about RTP is the strong network that exists here among entrepreneurs. Aside from the young talent and soaring research and technology in the area, I humbly believe this communal spirit is what drives the ever-growing startup community here. The sense of support and collaborative approach one finds here, even as a summer intern like me, is inspiring and refreshing. Every night of every week I am invited to meet-ups, conferences, happy hours, and networking events, all organized for the sole purpose of encouraging entrepreneurs in the area to meet, share experiences, and enjoy one another’s company. And with the existence of multiple incubators here for the sole purpose of launching startups, it’s almost impossible to ever feel without help or out of sync, regardless of your role within the company. Organizations with the purpose of pushing the area’s entrepreneurial impact, like Bull City Forward, even hosted a networking event for startup interns.

As Stanford professors Joseph Bankman and Ronald Gilson point out, “Communities are defined by their mythology.” From what I’ve experienced firsthand over the past two months, RTP has a community that’s small enough to easily connect with the right people, but big enough where there’s enough space to thrive amongst each other.

If you happen to be from the Triangle area, I don’t mean to bore you with what you may already know. If you’ve never been to these parts, I highly suggest a trip to explore Raleigh-Durham and all of the amazing facilities catered to new, innovative, and world changing companies (i.e. American Underground, Bull City Forward, CED). Like I was, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised and inspired by the incredible start-up community here. Moreover, not to boast, but it is worth mentioning that Durham received 2nd place in reader’s pick of New York Times Places To Go for 2011

So while my intention is not to start another east coast/west coast rap battle (RIP Tupac), I think it’s worth pointing out that California isn’t the only untouchable state, especially when it comes to start-up environments. In fact, I think Petey Pablo might have been ahead of the curve a bit when he asked all of North Carolina to “Raise Up” back in 2001. Or perhaps I’m reading into it all of these rap lyrics too much?

Obscure Hip Hop references aside, I have a new respect for RTP and all it has to offer. With such an immense amount of talent, research, and innovation all calling the Triangle area home, one should be careful not to allow the “wow factor” of Silicon Valley to overshadow RTP and the growing number of start-ups here.

California or North Carolina? I’m happy I went east.