TAMEST 2020 Program Chair: Bob Metcalfe, Ph.D. (NAE), Op-Ed on Innovating Texas

Selda Gunsel Profile

Note: this opinion-editorial was originally published in the Dallas Morning News on November 20, 2019.

The problem with comparing innovation between Texas and Silicon Valley is that everybody in Silicon Valley is moving to Texas.

Well, maybe not everybody, but more Californians move to Dallas-Fort Worth each year than residents of any other state, according to NerdWallet. And that isn’t even counting migration outside of North Texas.

In fact, according to data from the American Community Survey, between 2007 and 2016, a net of 1 million residents, or 2.5% of the state’s population, left California for another state due to an increased cost of living and scarcity of affordable housing. California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office cites Texas as the most popular destination, which attracted more than a quarter of them. Among the arrivals are a good many “founderati,” the glamorous people involved in growing startups.

I like to think I beat the reverse California tech rush. In 2011, I left the coasts to become professor of innovation at the University of Texas at Austin.

I got to Texas after 23 years as a student and early-career engineer in Boston, and then another 23 years as a scientist, engineer and entrepreneur prospering in Silicon Valley.

After helping pioneer the internet at MIT and Harvard, I moved to Silicon Valley in 1972, where I led the invention of Ethernet, the internet’s plumbing. I was fortunate to find success doing research, filing patents, growing startups, publishing and then settling into the world of venture capital.

However, I like to say that my wife, Robyn, and I moved to Texas as soon as we could. We moved because it’s warm (she’s a triathlete), because it’s business-friendly, there’s no income tax, because Texas has a seething startup ecosystem, and because y’all welcomed us.

After working to advance the Texas startup ecosystem for nine years, I’m now leading a conference that will celebrate, critique and catalyze how research in the lab ends up as products in the marketplace: “Innovating Texas: Research to Commercialization.”

Texas innovation started well before Silicon Valley earned its name, and there is much to celebrate. From the Nobel Prize-winning Texas Instruments engineer who invented the integrated circuit in 1958, to the first artificial heart transplant at the Texas Heart Institute in 1969, to the innovative horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies of the ’80s and ’90s that are making Texas the star of the energy industry today.

While Silicon Valley innovates mostly with bits of information, Texas does so with atoms that matter, including microcircuits, aortas, shale deposits, batteries and immune systems. Those last two won Texas scientists Nobel Prizes.

As home to more than 50 Fortune 500 headquarters, Texas’ highly skilled workforce, access to global markets and economic liberty have long secured the state’s lead in innovation, job creation, exports and more.

Of course commercializing research — taking inventions from the mind to the marketplace — still needs to improve in Texas. We need to win increased federal investment in Texas research, to expand access to venture capital and to improve our research centers. By doing so our state will more quickly span the various valleys of death that keep successful research from going to scale in world markets.

Conferences like Innovating Texas can help catalyze research commercialization by creating multidisciplinary forums of state experts on innovation to work together and map out the future of Texas’ success.

Research is not enough to change the world. We must better commercialize and scale our research results for impact. That starts by showing up and educating ourselves on all forms of innovation. And yes, we should be enthusiastic about copying anything that works in Silicon Valley, bits or atoms.

Bob Metcalfe is program chair of Innovating Texas: Research to Commercialization, taking place Jan. 7-9 at the Fairmont Dallas Hotel. He is professor of innovation and Murchison Fellow of Free Enterprise in the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.