Finding Your Yellow Brick Road to Silicon Valley

In 1981, three months before graduating from a liberal arts school 3,256 miles east of Silicon Valley, I became a failed physicist.

I remember exactly when this happened: 3:05 a.m. after a 24-hour stint in the dungeons of a 19th-century building. I had just experienced my first career crisis and I knew there was no way that was I ready to become a lab rat. I withdrew all of my grad school applications, called my advisor in a panic, and did what all failed physicists do: I ran more experiments. I promptly enrolled in an MBA program.

Fast forward to 1997. I was a mere 2,919 miles away when I found my yellow brick road to Silicon Valley. A recruiter called me about taking on a VP role at a startup. Shortly thereafter, I packed up the family and headed west.

I was fortunate enough to get to know several board members at my company, and, after the crash in 2000, we sold the company and one of our venture investors asked me to join their partnership.

An early VC mentor told me to focus on doing deals I could drive to. He operated by a universal truth that the odds of investing and making money fall with the square of distance. However, he also had a universal truth that the odds of finding 100s of VCs circling around hot deals goes up with the square of distance. It is an obvious dilemma.

My current firm decided to build a model that overcomes both of those issues. Every year we descend en masse to universities throughout the country meeting professors, students and startups in the local communities. We take Silicon Valley veterans with us who can help build companies if we find anything of interest.

Having now done these trips for years, we have found another universal truth.

Any professor or student with a decent background in computing has many yellow brick roads to follow to get to Silicon Valley. The local tech giants, including Facebook, Apple, Google, Twitter, and Salesforce, all recruit heavily from universities across the country. Support networks like Hacker’s Den, startup universities like Draper University, and a host of incubators serve as ample application magnets for computer science-focused students. If you have the right skills, you could even come to San Francisco, drive for Uber, and in a week you will have multiple offers from startups CEOs or VCs that hop in your car.

If however, you are a physicist, you are largely ignored. We found the same story with artists, microbiologists, chemists, material scientists, and economics wizards. The yellow brick road to Silicon Valley is not so obvious for them.

While software can and has changed our world, it is not the only discipline we need to build the next generation of thriving industries.

During our travels, we found ourselves being challenged by university professors to do something to help connect talented students and post docs with startups and Silicon Valley.

After much debate about the many ways this could be accomplished, Artiman launched B.E.T.A. (Biology, Economics, Technology and the Arts) in 2013. We ask our university contacts to nominate one or two exceptional graduating seniors, PhD candidates or recent postdocs into the program. The only criteria we ask is that each nominee is passionate about someday having an impact on all of us.

The 12 inaugural members had a wide range of interests, from pricing practices of mobile networks to sensing platforms to electronic based molecule technology used to diagnose infectious diseases.

We bring each class together to interact with our network, founding teams and partners with no agenda other than talk about what is possible as well as help answer questions about venture capitalism, startups, business models and career choices.

After the formal event, each B.E.T.A. member has direct access to any partner at any time for help or advice on anything. We’re inaugurating our B.E.T.A. class of 2015 this week and are excited and impressed by the range of interests across the group — and their real desire to change the world.

Each B.E.T.A. member is on their own yellow brick road, and maybe it won’t even lead them to Silicon Valley. I don’t know yet if this experiment will be successful — ask us in five or 10 years. But if B.E.T.A. can help any of the members to realize their own ambitions for changing the world, then we will have succeeded.

Tim Wilson is a Managing Director at Artiman Ventures, an early-stage venture fund investing in white space companies creating or disrupting multibillion dollar markets. He represents Artiman on the boards of Crossbar Semiconductor, Kaybus, Prysm, Mossey Creek Technologies, and Nutrinsic, and also is a director of InvenSense (NYSE: INVN) and Five9 (NASDAQ: FIVN).