Willow Garage Founder Scott Hassan Aims To Build A Startup Village

Photo: Willow Garage
Scott Hassan

Once, Silicon Valley was all about garages. It seemed if you put a couple of smart engineers together in a garage, magical things happened.

These days, it’s about incubators; these sometimes-big operations host as many as 80 or more tiny companies whose founders are busily developing prototypes and fine-tuning business plans. Incubators are often funded by investors who take a little piece of each of the companies they incubate.

Garages have an important advantage over incubators—if your company is in your garage, it’s easy to work day and night, or any time you get the impulse. Get a great idea in the shower? You can start testing it out in about as long as it takes you to towel off.

Companies in incubators, though, have an advantage of their own—the presence of other smart engineers to act as inspirations, sounding boards, and sometimes collaborators.

It appears that Scott Hassan—who worked with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to develop an early version of the company's technology, sold a company to Yahoo for $413 million (some of which he invested in Google), and founded robotic research lab Willow Garage—is going to try to combine the advantages of both the garage and the incubator. Hassan, it came out last week, is behind a large real estate development in Menlo Park, Calif. He reportedly plans to create an incubator village with 18,500 square meters of workspace and another 18,500 square meters of living space on a 30,000 square meter site.

Hassan has room on his plate for something new. He essentially shut down Willow Garage last year, after seven years of operation. Hassan has been involved with Willow Garage spinoff, Suitable Technologies. (Another spin-off company, Unbounded Robotics, shut down this summer.) But it turns out he had another project in the works at least since last year.

Hassan doesn’t talk to the press that often, and didn’t respond to my request to discuss his plans for the Menlo Park incubator village. Last week, Bob Burke, a principal at Greenheart Land Companies, told the Palo Alto Daily Post that Hassan plans to create a space for young tech entrepreneurs to work and live, one that is close to downtown restaurants and transit. Beyond that, Burke gave little detail. (The article is not yet available online.)

Hassan’s incubator village isn’t exactly a done deal. Last November, the proposal submitted to the City of Menlo Park by Greenheart (Hassan’s involvement had yet to be revealed) generated some pushback. A group of residents called Save Menlo Park organized to limit the amount of office space on the project (and other large developments) to 9300 square meters; they succeeded in placing an initiative that would set such a limit on the upcoming November ballot. Arguments in favor of what is called Measure M surround concerns over commute traffic generated by workers at the complex, leading to rush-hour gridlock on busy El Camino Real and therefore more traffic cutting through neighborhoods.

These arguments were written up when the project was simply described as a mix of office and residential space. The "incubator village" concept, however, eliminates the commute issue; in a true incubator village, residents would walk to work, and only use cars in off hours. With that concept and Hassan's involvement on the table, I asked one of the residents behind Save Menlo Park if he now is less worried about the proposed development. He told me that thinks Hassan's incubator would be interesting—built somewhere else—because he doesn’t see it as cutting traffic, believing both the apartments and the office space will go to the highest bidders, with no real link between the two.

Indeed, I am curious about how Hassan plans to get entrepreneurs to live as well as work on the site, and if such a program is sustainable—when companies move, will the engineers have to move too? Will he offer free rentals? Subsidized housing? However, I am more optimistic than the Save Menlo backer that Hassan will do something more interesting with this project than just make money. For one, this isn’t the first time he’s tried to make it easy for engineers to live close to work—in its day, Willow Garage bought a few houses near its Menlo Park offices and set them up as residences for the company’s interns. For another, Hassan has shown that he looks at buildings as places to generate companies, not rental income. According to Business Week, Willow Garage started when Hassan “snagged some prime office space in Menlo Park.” He then tapped Steve Cousins, a former Xerox Parc and IBM research lab manager, as CEO and simply told him to fill the building with interesting stuff, with the mantra being: “Impact first and return on capital second.”

So it’s possible that’s what Hassan will do in Menlo Park—focus on impact first and return on capital second. That is, if his project is not blocked, he’s likely to get it built and then get someone to fill it with “interesting stuff.” Will it be interesting enough to make tech workers used to San Francisco’s restaurants and nightlife want to get off the bus and live where they work? Stay tuned.

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Senior Editor
Tekla Perry
Palo Alto
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