The Startups of Silicon Valley

Imagine the ultimate trip that you, as an NCSU student, could take over spring break.

This dream trip would be impactful, meaningful, inspiring … possibly life changing. Every year during Spring Break, the NCSU Entrepreneurship Initiative deploys just this sort of experience in the form of its Spring Break Silicon Valley Trip. This year, eighteen students had the opportunity to learn how Silicon Valley works by visiting 15 high-energy companies and hearing their stories.

I had the good fortune to go on this year’s trip. Just looking at it personally, it was an incredibly moving and inspiring 5-day adventure through the Silicon Valley ecosystem. The 15 companies come in all shapes and sizes, from a little 7-person startup all the way up to behemoths like Apple, Facebook, and Google.

A number of the companies we visited are startups that a student could easily imagine creating and growing themselves.

The first stop – and a perfect example of a startup – was Credence Medsystems. This company consists of 14 people and has identified needle “sticks” as the problem that they are going to solve.

It turns out that every year in the United States, about three million medical practitioners (Doctors, nurses, etc.) are accidentally stuck by a syringe after it has been used on a patient. The risk of disease transfer in this situation is unfortunately quite high. The doctor or nurse who has been stuck must be tested for six months, and these tests add up to about $1,000 each. In other words, accidental needle sticks are a $3 billion problem in the U.S. alone, not to mention the worry and problems it causes for the practitioners. The Credence team is inspirational because they have a brilliant approach to solving the problem and a team with experience that can execute on their solution. In a nutshell, they have developed a new syringe where the needle retracts into the syringe’s plunger when the plunger is fully depressed. Once retracted, it is impossible for the needle to stick anyone, and it is also impossible for a drug addict to reuse the syringe. Both the problem that Credence is solving and the idea for the solution are completely accessible to students – anyone could see themselves doing something similar.

UserTesting is a medium-size company of about 300 people and is equally accessible. Chris Hicken spoke to the group and was completely transparent in terms of how the company started, how they price the product, how they obtain customers and grow, etc. It was simply an amazing talk.

Kat’s talk at Y Combinator was pure inspiration – an incredible amount of information and experience is in the air there, with over 1,000 startups launched from its doors since 2005, with 48 of them now worth more than $100 million.

Jason at Eatsa blew me away – it was a perfect way to finish the tour. Eatsa is a new restaurant chain where there are no employees visible. You walk in and order on a tablet computer (or on your phone before you arrive), and then 90 seconds later your order appears in a cubby with your name on it. His story about creating a full-size cardboard prototype of the restaurant is incredibly interesting and imaginable.

Here is the complete list of companies we visited:

Credence Medsystems




Y Combinator


Launchpad Toys


Blue Jeans Network



Kleiner Perkins

Citrine Informatics



All of these visits feature NCSU alumni.

Jason at Eatsa graduated 7 years ago; Jeff Williams, the #2 executive at Apple, walked into the room and spoke with us for about 20 minutes – he is an NCSU alum and Caldwell Fellow.

The other amazing thing about this year’s trip was the group of students who came along, and who are outstanding in their own right. These 18 students represent an incredibly solid slice of the NCSU student body: alive, curious, interested, engaged, inspired. They asked great questions at every stop. I had the opportunity to talk to a number of them about their entrepreneurial ventures and dreams. It was simply a fantastic group and there is no way they could come away from this trip without being inspired and energized about moving forward.

And then the trip itself ran like clockwork: 15 companies visited, all of the meals provided at some of the Bay Area’s best restaurants, non-stop flights, a great hotel, a bus to provide transportation to all the different sites … it all went flawlessly. No one taking the tour had to think about the logistics because the logistics are always invisible, which makes the trip incredibly comfortable.

All in all, it was a fantastic trip! I am incredibly glad I had the chance to go and to meet these companies and these students.

About the Author

Marshall Brain is a guest blogger for the EI blog. He is best known as the founder of How Stuff Works and started HowStuffWorks as his hobby in 1998 and it has grown to be one of the top Web sites in the country. In 2007 Discovery Communications purchased for $250 million. He is also well-known as the host of the show “Factory Floor” which appeared on the National Geographic channel.

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