Creating Silicon Valley 2.0

To bring the engineering talent of the entire world to a single focus, we need virtualization. One way to get it is by using gaming platforms.

6 min read
Illustration of a gold circuit board with game controllers
Illustration: iStockphoto/IEEE Spectrum

Illustration of a gold circuit board with game controllersIllustration: iStockphoto/IEEE Spectrum

This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.

Silicon Valley’s magical concentration of talent, capital, and culture in a single place has led to decades of unparalleled wealth creation—probably exceeding anything ever seen before by orders of magnitude. This spectacular success has induced attempts to emulate it in such enclaves as Silicon Mountain (one in the African nation of Cameroon, and another in the U.S. state of Colorado), Silicon Hills (Texas), Silicon Desert (Arizona), and many more.

These seedlings may indeed grow to become forests, but the ingredients are there for even more promising transformations—metamorphoses that would bring far greater resources together at abstracted, or virtual, focal points. Call them Silicon Valley 2.0.

Virtualization, an IBM invention, was a breakthrough concept in computer science. Previously a computer’s operating system struggled to share the physical hardware among the computer’s applications. Virtualization was able to give each application, from its point of view, what appears to be exclusive access to the hardware resources and operating system.

If the same virtualization concept could be applied to Silicon Valley, perhaps its geographically localized resources and unique entrepreneurial culture could draw upon talent and capital anywhere in the world.

A huge global pool of latent engineering talent is indeed out there. I know this because, as a volunteer representing IEEE, I have been reviewing university engineering programs for ABET, Inc., for decades. ABET began as a non-profit organization of engineering professional societies (e.g., IEEE, ASME, AIChE) that set the standards for engineering and technology programs in the United States. Today, ABET accredits more than 4,000 programs at almost 850 institutions in 41 countries.

Many of these programs are both technically rigorous (substantially exceeding minimum requirements in engineering science and design) and highly selective (using dramatically winnowing, merit-based standards for acceptance into the program). Each of these programs graduates tens to hundreds of well-qualified engineers every year; together they account for perhaps a million new engineers a year.

Unfortunately, upon graduation, many of these engineers cannot find jobs matching their qualifications. Developing countries may generally lack the well-developed technology industrial base and infrastructure needed to support, say, chip design, bioengineering, or mechatronics. Developing countries are building roads and bridges and are installing power and cellular grids that are the base infrastructure that will eventually support the growth of technology-based industry. These base-infrastructure projects offer employment prospects for civil and electrical engineers, but they are not enough to provide meaningful employment for all of the graduating engineers. There is thus an accumulating global pool of latent engineering talent.

In the past, the average engineer commuted to an engineering office each weekday and toiled at a company-provided desk using company-provided computers and laboratory equipment. It was easy to find and meet with essential co-workers to cooperate on shared engineering design goals because even interdisciplinary development teams’ engineers were all a few cubes or, at most, a few buildings apart. Increasingly, this model has been supplemented or even supplanted by telecommuting, often across vast distances.

The global pandemic has interrupted traditional workflow and has accelerated this virtualization of engineering development. Engineers now work, more often than not, from home using personal computers with access through the corporation’s virtual private network to remote design databases, engineering design software, and other resources. When meetings or discussion are necessary, they collaborate with co-workers through Zoom or other video conferencing applications.

There are many pros and cons, but the engineering community is adapting to distributed work environments. Teams constituted across the internet’s virtual space are taping out new chip designs with approximately the same efficiency as traditional design teams. Though reduction of commuting and travel improves efficiency, remote video conferencing is awkward, inconvenient, and is still evolving (in use and in features), which tamps down some of those efficiency gains. For large, geographically dispersed projects, control of intellectual property and trade secrets would be more difficult. Global engineering competition could reduce wages in high-cost-of-living regions even as it improves opportunities in other regions. (Perhaps wage levelling will be mitigated by expanding opportunities or by further specialization.)

Silicon Catalyst is an excellent example of how talent, capital, and culture can be creatively combined in Silicon Valley. Founded in 2015 as an incubator, this organization—for which I am an advisor—specializes in semiconductor-based startups building products based on chips, intellectual property, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), or sensors. Startups that apply to Silicon Catalyst and successfully undergo a rigorous screening process become “portfolio companies,” which enter the incubator for a period of two years.

Silicon Catalyst unites in-kind partners, strategic partners, investors, advisors, universities, industry organizations, other incubators, and government agencies. In-kind partners, such as ARM, Lattice, Synopsys, TSMC, and many more, provide startups with intellectual property, design and simulation software, test vectors, prototypes, and even fab runs. Strategic partners, including Bosch, Cirrus Logic, On Semiconductor, and Texas Instruments, participate in the screening process and actively seek out partnerships with portfolio companies.

Before the recent pandemic, Silicon Catalyst was a mostly local organization with slowly growing national and international connections. It sponsored local events where advisors, investors, partners, and portfolio companies mixed over wine and cheese. Attendees at these events were sitting in on interactive sessions for the purpose of screening new candidate companies, learning the current progress of portfolio companies, or hearing from an expert on a topic of mutual interest. Under the pressure of the pandemic, Silicon Catalyst has begun the transition from local meetings to virtual meetings over Zoom. This has provided broader access to talent and capital and globalization of entrepreneurial culture, at the cost of one-on-one personal connections. And there’s no more wine and cheese. The final effect, though, is simply the replication of Silicon Valley’s combination of talent, capital, and culture globally.

Business talent provides the starting point: Generations of engineers and entrepreneurs reside in Silicon Valley, and these aging sages offer decades of accumulated experience and expertise in technology-based innovation. John East, Mark Ross, Chris Rowen, and other experienced individuals offer startups advice based on their hard-earned expertise in sales, marketing, messaging, semiconductor physics, optics, chemistry, production, and packaging.

Capital comes next: Silicon Valley has long been the beneficiary of perhaps half of the venture capital invested in the United States. One consequence of that is that a generous portion of the biggest and most successful technology-based companies have a large presence in the area. Silicon Catalyst (along with many other local venture-capital firms) are always at the ready to help startups find money.

Culture is the capstone: Silicon Valley 1.0 perfected an experience-based, fail-forward culture. This dynamic, entrepreneurial environment became a talent magnet for enterprising individuals. It wasn’t long before the region, which was home to first-rate universities, a tolerant, merit-based work environment, and great weather, became the seedbed of a host of burgeoning technology businesses. Now, the virtualization of Silicon Valley is extending that entrepreneurial culture across the globe.

There is, however, a missing piece to the puzzle: How can we integrate the components? How might it become possible to mine the latent talent in the global engineering pool, especially since much of that talent is currently trapped inside their homes?

Allow me to suggest that we look to the gaming industry to solve this problem. Gaming platforms, such as Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation, are relatively cheap and highly capable computing platforms. Further, they have user-friendly operating systems that have been exhaustively tested by probably hundreds of millions of enthusiasts (who themselves constitute an experienced talent pool).

Today’s state-of-the-art game engines use physics-based simulation to render interactive, realistic action and effects on Internet-connected platforms. Such physics-based simulation is exactly what is needed for solving many advanced engineering and design problems. With some modification to those operating systems and the addition of a mouse, keyboard, and display, they could become highly capable engineering workstations. What’s more, they are cheap enough for wide distribution. These systems could be the link allowing an engineer in the latent talent pool to participate in virtualized engineering development from anywhere in the world.

The remaining problem is how best to match up a particular problem with an engineer who has the right expertise to solve it. One possibility is to create a Craigslist-like marketplace to broker connections. Companies or individuals with specific problems to solve could issue a request for proposal (RFP); engineers could submit bids for completion of the task. Similarly, engineering teams looking for domain-specific expertise could publish requirements and then survey respondents for the best fit.

A perhaps complementary avenue might be an extension of the XPRIZE Foundation. XPRIZE, founded by Peter Diamandis in 1994, sponsors public competitions aimed at encouraging technology development. The cash prizes it offers have proven to be an irresistible draw to innovators.

Imagine a company—call it RoboMax— that starts a public competition for the design of an autonomous robotic window washer for skyscrapers, offering a prize of US $5 million and a licensing agreement with RoboMax for the production of winning components.

RoboMax would make available its robotics development software together with its standard robotics components library. Single individuals or engineering development teams (virtualized, of course) would compete by augmenting standard robotics components with the development of custom grapples, suction-cups, traversal algorithms, and washing appendages. Each engineering team, using engineering-design-based versions of a popular gaming platform equipped with modified, physics-based simulation software, could first design and experiment with simulated components. When the team thinks it has good candidates, it could order prototype components from a third-party for use in mixed-mode simulations or in fully implemented prototypes.

The competition might be judged using working prototypes in a straight competition to measure cost-effectiveness, efficiency, error rates, and repair costs. With forty thousand major office buildings in just the United States it’s likely that several designs might find application niches with long-term market prospects.

The virtual engineering world may develop along different lines than I have indicated. But I believe that Silicon Valley 2.0, by tapping into worldwide reserves of talent, will far exceed the creative legacy of Silicon Valley 1.0.

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