Is Silicon Valley Dead? Not According to Venture Dollars

In a record quarter for VC funding, California still takes the cake—further evidence that reports of the region’s demise are greatly exaggerated. 

Silicon Valley’s most valuable asset is no longer silicon, to make computer chips, or even tech talent, to code software products. Instead, it is capital, which has been accumulating in the region since today’s startup founders were in diapers. Nearby San Francisco is now home to more billionaires per capita than any other city in the world—and many have invested their wealth right back into the startup ecosystem. Put another way: Silicon Valley is the tech capital because of the tech capital.

Recently, some investors have talked a big talk about bringing their cash elsewhere. Peter Thiel announced in February he was moving his Founders Fund to Miami; Joe Lonsdale took his venture firm, 8VC, to Austin. The Bay Area is dead, they say. If money talks, though, it suggests otherwise.

Venture capital had a record year in 2020, and the lion’s share of investments remained in California. That pattern continues into this year: Of the $69 billion that US-based venture funds invested in startups in the first quarter of 2021, more than $25 billion—over a third—landed in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, according to the latest Pitchbook data. That amount is greater than the next three cities—New York, Boston, and Los Angeles—combined, and more than 30 times the investments in cities like Austin.

Those new numbers tell an old story about venture capital. “In our data set, it’s never not been concentrated in the Bay Area,” says Kyle Stanford, a Pitchbook analyst. This winter, as rumors of technorati fleeing California’s politics and high cost of living reached fever pitch, Stanford sought to qualify declarations that Silicon Valley was on the decline. He found that, between 2015 and 2020, 40 percent of VC dollars went to companies based in the Bay Area. And while other cities have seen more dollars pour in recently, it hasn’t yet done much to unseat Silicon Valley as the regional king.

So far in 2021, California startups continue to collect the biggest investments. Of the largest 25 early-stage deals in Pitchbook’s Q1 data set, 12 were completed in the state. Of the 10 biggest deals, half were based in California. And the size of these deals are getting bigger and bigger. In the first few months of 2021, there were three times as many “mega-rounds,” or rounds over $100 million, as the same quarter last year. While a few of those companies have brought wealth into new areas—like the $2.65 billion Series F raised by automaker Rivian, based in Plymouth, Michigan—many of the largest rounds have been for California-based companies. Enterprise software maker Databricks, headquartered in San Francisco, raised more than $1 billion in financing in the first quarter of the year. Robinhood, headquartered in Menlo Park, raised a staggering round of $3.4 billion.

Large exits are also concentrated in California. In the first quarter of 2021, the top three exits—Roblox, Tuya Smart, and Affirm—were all based in Silicon Valley or San Francisco, netting more than $63 billion between them. Over the past three years, only 20 companies have completed a $1 billion exit outside of the four largest startup ecosystems.

Silicon Valley doesn’t have a complete stranglehold. Smaller rounds of VC funding are making their way to new cities at a higher rate. In the first quarter of 2021, investors funded some 1,500 angel and seed rounds—the greatest quarterly total that Pitchbook has recorded since it started tracking in 2006. The Bay Area received 14.5 percent of those rounds, which still makes it the regional leader, though by a smaller margin than other types of investments. Some cities, like Minneapolis, recorded more first financings in the last quarter than ever before. Denver and Chicago have both shown huge growth year-over-year in total number of investments, indicating growing interest in those startup ecosystems.

Still, as Stanford put it in his February report, “growth in one area does not preclude growth in another.” The rise of other startup hubs around the country has not eaten into Silicon Valley’s slice of the pie—the pie has just gotten bigger. That’s in part because the overall size of venture spending, and the overall size of investment rounds, has grown a ton. Outside of the United States, that’s also true: The first three months of 2021 marked a record for global VC investment, according to Crunchbase’s quarterly report. If Silicon Valley has competition anywhere, it’s not Miami or Austin, but Shanghai or Seoul.

In the United States, interest in tech startups beyond the Bay Area continues to grow, whether from investors seeking better deals or wanting to spread the opportunity around more. Steve Case, the venture capitalist and founder of AOL, has for several years committed his Rise of the Rest fund to financing startups between the coasts. And SoftBank earmarked $100 million to fund Miami-based startups. Stanford says those are “tangible movements” which are likely to have some impact on smaller startup ecosystems, but it’s not likely to detract from the concentration of capital in California. “Something like 750 funds have been raised in the past few years in San Francisco, so losing five is not as significant to San Francisco as it could be for the ecosystem that gains them.”

Updated 4-14-2012, 12:41 pm EDT: This story originally stated that Pacaso, a property-tech startup based in San Francisco, had raised more than $1 billion in venture funding in the first quarter of 2021. After publication, Pacaso alerted WIRED that this figure was inaccurate: The company received $1 billion in debt financing, and has so far raised only $90 million in venture funding. We have removed the reference to the company from the article. 

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