Creativity For Scientists: Emulating Silicon Valley

There was a time that Silicon Valley was a place of fruit trees, while Boston was thriving with technology. By being creative, companies in the Valley became the leaders in innovative high-tech. Read below how they did it and how it can be applied to improve creativity for scientists.

Jonah Lehrer was interviewed by Mashable about creativity. In it Jonah describes the rise of Sillicon Valley from a land of fruit trees to the innovations and high tech center we know today.

In the 60s and early 70s, Massachusetts area was the technological center of USA. It concentrated many of the technological mammoths of that time.

These companies were so large that operated like little self sufficient countries. As such, they avoided contact with rival companies by means of secrecy, NDAs and a vertical flow of information. There was hardly any knowledge shared between companies, as employees were encouraged to keep their mouths shut.

Next to this they suffered from megalobusinesscitis, which is risk aversion, lack of innovation, slow reaction to market changes, and the belief that creativity can be achieved by acquisitions.

Jonah points out that in the Boston area there was obviously a great concentration of talent, but despite of this knowledge was not shared, it was not flowing freely.

Entrepreneurs in a garage in Silicon Valley

Image by Xavier Verdaguer, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur

Meanwhile on the other coast, Silicon Valley firms were smaller and had to collaborate in order to grow and to handle larger projects. They even shared engineers, who in many cases, would frequently switch jobs contributing to the exchange of knowledge.

If you read the biography of Steve Jobs you will find how he approached other CEOs for mentoring. This practice that was well rooted in Silicon Valley and shows their different approach to business.

All this created a business ecosystem that thrived via professional networks and knowledge sharing, instead of via large companies. The end results was the creation of some of the most innovative companies we have in our time.

As we can see, the key to innovation was the free flow of knowledge and cross pollination between organizations and individuals.

Sometimes you might want to be open and share your knowledge but your organization might want to be protective with their IP. It can also happen that your ideas are too radical and face disapproval by some if the big names around.

(If you want to know more about the origins of Silicon Valley check these series of articles at by NPR 1,2,3,4)

Why not going to a smaller and quieter place instead?

This escape route is what to Stephen Friend chose when he left Harvard and moved to Seattle to create his bioinformatics company Rosetta.

In this interview Friend acknowledges that “Everyone in Boston feels certain that they are working on the right next step in research […] So if you say, ‘I think I see a better way,’ it’s very hard. The natural impulse of everyone else is to say, ‘I had that thought a few years ago, and it doesn’t work.’ ”

As it turns out, Friend abandoned big institutions twice to move to more risky ventures. His company Rosetta was acquired by giant pharma company Merck, which moved Friend back to the East Coast. After some years in Merck, Friend felt the itch again.

Friend moved back to Seattle and created his foundation Sage Bionetworks to encourage scientists to openly share data and bring together their brainpower. Friend had been looking for such collaborations at Merck but the protectionism of the company forced him to pursue his ideas somewhere else.

Creativity Fro Scientists

Image via Normal Lear Center

Three Ideas to Improve Creativity for Scientists

 Try New fields

Some of the best inventions come from applying an old concept to a new purpose. Look for approaches that worked in other fields and try to translate them to your field. You can also try to identify fields where your expertise could be of help.

Take as an example this self fulfilling blog post, which tries to improve creativity among scientist by looking at how creativity was developed in the tech industry.

Take Risks

Challenging the status quo every now and then is healthy, doing it too often turns you into a ball-breaker. Challenge wisely.

Join projects that push you out of your comfort zone, those that can get you high rewards in return. Staying in their comfort zone is what kept big corporations from Boston from vein innovative.

If you ask in your department why we are doing things in a certain way and they often reply it is because we have always done it like this, then you know you have to put everything upside down and do it completely different, like tying your shoes.

Be Open

Share your ideas with other people. It will clarify your ideas and you will get great feedback in return. Never underestimate the feedback that a non expert can give, if it is from an expert, do it at your peril.

If you work in an organization that is always scared of others stealing ideas, find a new position like Stephen Frien did.

If you think that getting an idea stolen hampers your career, think again.

You as a scientist are paid to generate ideas. What’s the point of loosing some ideas because of the thieves? You are expected to generate more.

A great way of being open is sharing your ideas via a blog. Subscribe to the NextScientist mailing list to receive useful tips on how to start with scientific blogging.



About Julio Peironcely

Julio Peironcely, PhD is the founder of Next Scientist and a PhD by Leiden University. He helps PhD students to stay motivated, be more productive and finish their PhDs. Follow him on Twitter (@peyron) or read more from him on


  1. Creative genius in science is Not the result of trivial aphorisms.