Strictly Business: Innovation a risk worth taking

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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The television documentary "Silicon Valley," broadcast Tuesday on PBS, opens against a backdrop of the Santa Clara Valley in the 1950s, when apricot orchards dominated and the technology industry had barely taken root.

The program tracks a transformation so complete that the valley and surrounding environs embraced the name of its wealth-producing economic engine.

"Silicon Valley" chronicles Robert Noyce's emergence as a visionary leader in developing the integrated circuit and other foundational technologies. He was one of eight men, later remembered as the traitorous eight, who in 1957 broke away from the stifling Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory to strike out on their own.

It was a rare leap of faith for a family man in those days. "There was no model for this notion of breaking away and doing something different," Leslie Berlin, a chronicler of Silicon Valley history, notes.

The men launched Fairchild Semiconductor, a division of a larger company that funded the venture, which quickly became a pioneer in transistor and integrated circuit manufacturing. Soon, Fairchild was spawning dozens of new firms. Noyce and Gordon Moore were the last of the traitorous eight to leave Fairchild when they bolted to form Intel in 1968.

Those eight men helped forge the Silicon Valley business culture that, as the show's narrator intones, "favors openness over hierarchy, risk over stability, and innovation over the tried-and-true."

While there will never be business success without risk, it's worth noting how much more support is available for today's risk-takers. Countless business groups, government programs, nonprofits, and educational colleges offer technical expertise, management training, and financing leads. Investors are constantly looking for promising companies and entrepreneurs. Risk over stability has become a business success mantra.

In this state, Innovate Washington is taking a lead in guiding today's entrepreneurs to business success. The statewide public-private partnership, formed in 2011 through the merger of programs based in Seattle and Spokane, is focused heavily on clean energy programs. But it's working with other types of startups, with a focus on companies in late-stage development ready to take a big leap forward, says Bart Phillips, the organization's vice president of economic development and a former president of the Vancouver-based Columbia River Economic Development Council.

Times have changed since Noyce and his eager band of rebels defied business norms with their risk-taking startup. "At one time, innovation wasn't appreciated or institutionally supported," Phillips says. "We've now learned that we have to support innovation."

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian's business editor. 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver; http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or gordon.oliver@columbian.com