Explaining Southern California's economy

Mars Curiosity v. SpaceX: Running the numbers

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Grant Slater/KPCC

Members of the project leadership team pass out high fives to engineers from mission control before a press conference at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Sunday night. At $2.5 billion, the Curiosity mission equals what NASA has given to SpaceX in funding.

KPCC reporters had been talking to Southland scientists and engineers and counting down the days until NASA's most ambitious rover yet — Curiosity — prepares to land on the Martian surface. Follow the series online.


The spectacular success of JPL in landing the Mars Curiosity rover on Mars last night followed hot of the heels of SpaceX's stunning demonstration that a commercial spaceflight company — and a startup, no less — could do what only governments had been able to do: send a capsule to the International Space Station and bring it back home.

The JPL rocket scientists in their now iconic powder-blue polo shirts (not to mention mohawks) and SpaceX's engineers in their L.A. casual-cool mission control room threads formed a vivid contrast with the buttoned-up (and tobacco-friendly) NASA vibe of old. Something new is definitely in the air, er...airless void of space, and much of it is being designed and built in Southern California. SpaceX is headquartered in Hawthorne, just south of L.A, and JPL calls Pasadena home.

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Rocketdyne is only worth half an Instagram?

Mercer 10129

AP Photo/Reed Saxon

This Feb. 12, 2009 photo shows buildings at the old Rocketdyne facility, the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, in the Simi Valley area near Los Angeles. The company was just sold for $550 million.

The success of SpaceX and its historic Space Station servicing mission put the space business in California back on the map. But the sale of on a space pioneer in the Golden State reminds us that the economy has changed. In the 1950s, high-tech meant aerospace and rocketry. In the second decade of the 20th century, those industries still command respect and inspire a romantic view of the future. But if you want to sell your company for billions, smartphones and photo-sharing apps are the way to go.

This encapsulates the rise of Silicon Valley and the decline of Southern California. Although SoCal can still turn in some good results. As I reported back in March, United Technologies decided to sell Rocketdyne — the company makes exactly what it sounds like it makes, rocket boosters — to fund a record-breaking $16.5-billion acquisition of Goodrich Corp. UT has now completed that sale, to GenCorp for $550 million, according to the L.A. Times.

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Yammer sells to Microsoft for $1.2 billion. Good call on skipping that IPO!

Yammer

The enterprise social network would do anything to avoid an IPO. And then along came Microsoft...

Yammer, based in San Francisco, is basically Twitter for business — although in the two roughly years since I regularly used it, it's evidently added some Facebook-esque features. It's been at the vanguard of "enterprise social networking," or bringing microblogging and social networking into the business environment. With the consumer space tapped out, this is where a lot of companies are looking to expand. 

Or, in Microsoft's case, acquire. Just for perspective, $1.2 billion is FAT valuation for Yammer. Remember Instagram, the year-and-half old photo sharing site with 13 employees that Facebook bought on the eve of its IPO for $1 billion? Yeah, that seems so long ago now...

Yammer sold for a little more than one "Instagram," in the new parlance of Silicon Valley. But more importantly, Microsoft bought the company for all cash. Instagram, by contrast, was a cash-and-stock deal, mostly stock. So Yammer's investors, who had put about $150 million into the startup, are going to see a very large payday, composed of actual money that they can use to either buy a second yacht or turn around and pour into other startup investments.

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Venture capital isn't over — it's trifurcating!

TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2011 - Day 3

Araya Diaz/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Venture capitalists and founders at a recent TechCrunch Disrupt conference. Are the those who disrupt about to get disrupted?

Scott Anthony, who runs venture investing for Innosight — a consulting firm founded by the founder of "disruptive innovation," Clayton Christensen — has applied the master's lessons to the venture capital space at Harvard Business Review's blog. Like a lot of folks, myself included, he takes a recent Kauffman Foundation report as his starting point. 

And then he effectively deploys Christensen's best-known concept to explain why venture capital — and particularly big VC funds — isn't performing as well as an investment class as it has in the past. The way disruptive innovation works is that in an established industry, a new player will enter at the low end and wind up disrupting the major players.

A good example might be Japanese carmakers attacking first small motorcycles and later small cars, then moving up the food chain to make plenty of trouble for Ford and General Motors. More recently, you could argue that Instagram did this to Facebook by creating a lightweight mobile photo-sharing app that was so easy to use that it acquired 50 million users practically overnight. 

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Good money after bad: CalPERS and the crisis in venture capital

Max Whittaker/Getty Images

The California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) building in Sacramento. The fund has billions invested in venture capital and other alternative asset classes.

VC-Returns-Kauffman

The performance of VC has been poor sine the the mid-1990s.

Smaller-VC-Kauffman

In VC, smaller funds outperform larger ones.

VC-Big-Kauffman

Big VC doesn't meet outsized return expectations.

N-J-Curve-Kauffman

The "N-curve" is in blue and red. The "J-curve" is in green. In VC, you expect J, but you actually get N, with most returns coming early, rather than late.

Institutionalization-VC-Kauffman

A healthy VC ecosystem? Not really. Most of the money is going to fewer funds.

VC-Fees-Kauffman

Are VCs really all about raising money and charging fees? The Kauffman Foundation blames itself for creating this compensation structure.


Pretend, for a moment, that you’re a computer science student at Stanford University. Chances are good that you’ve thought about taking your degree — or even not waiting to get your degree — and starting a technology company.

It’s the new American Dream. It attracts the most talented international students to our major research universities. It’s made the likes of Jerry Yang, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and, more recently, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Instagram’s Kevin Systrom (both under 30) multi-millionaires if not multi-billionaires nearly overnight.

Technology. The Internet. Mobile. Innovation. Disruption. Entrepreneurship.

These are the things that make America great in the early 21st century. Many of these new businesses are located in California. And they all have one thing in common: They live and die based on the investment decisions of venture capitalists, arguably the most important reallocators of wealth in the global economy.

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