San Mateo County Times

Hi-tech tour views Silicon Valley
Monday, March 08, 1999

By Liz Garone

It looked like a tour: some 40 people peering out the windows of a long bus.

It sounded like a tour: a guide waxing eloquently on local history via a microphone.

It smelled like a tour: hot coffee and fresh muffins served up at the start of the day.

But where were the ocean vistas, the statues, the cameras, all the items that would confirm that it really was a tour?

"This is about the mind and expanding the mind," Tom McDonagh tried to explain. "It isn't a sightseeing tour."

McDonagh owns Original Tours in San Francisco. He leads Bay Area groups on daylong excursions to a destination not found on maps: Silicon Valley.

By guiding people in and around the offices where new technologies are being created and deals are being made, McDonagh believes he can give them a better understanding of the Valley's historical -- and future -- significance.

McDonagh is not alone in his quest. Others have tried Valley tours, with varying degrees of success -- and failure.

Gray Line offered them for about a year.

"We just couldn't make the bottom line," said Noreen Valera, Gray Line's director of tour and travel services in San Francisco. "The tours weren't a big seller."

Deborah Lynn, owner of Los Gatosbased Tech-Tours, runs Valley excursions for people seeking a more exclusive experience, with a chauffeured limousine and lunch at a posh restaurant.

Visitors pay dearly for the added luxuries: Tech-Tours can cost upwards of $300 per person compared with $85 for a recent outing with Original Tours.

Lynn is averaging two tours a month; McDonagh, two a year. Both companies expect that business will pick up soon.

"It's the kind of thing that will take off once people begin to realize that it's not just a tour, but that it can really grip you," said McDonagh, a native of Ireland's Galway coast.

French journalist Jacques Gauchey introduced visitors to the Valley's premier address: 3000 Sand Hill Road, Menlo Park.

"Everybody wants to have a Sand Hill Road address," he said.

Sand Hill Road is the core of venture capitalism and home to the most expensive real estate in the U.S., according to Gauchey.

"Don't be fooled by the pleasant country appearance of the place," Gauchey told riders as the bus passed a cluster of modest, one-story buildings surrounded by oak and cherry trees.

First, he pointed to a passing armored truck, then to a convertible Jaguar. Pierre Lamond, founder of National Semiconductor and a well-known venture capi talist, was at the wheel.

Gauchey used dollar amounts to em phasize his points: In 1998, Lamond and other Valley VCs invested more than $14 billion in 3,000 start-up companies.

Local historian Ward Winslow com manded the mike and took everyone back to 1891 when railroad magnate Leland Stanford founded Stanford University. Long before 1972 when a trade paper coined the name "Silicon Valley," most people referred to the area as the Valley of Heart's Delight, according to Winslow.

One of the only remaining pre-earthquake buildings in the area, Stanford's Barn houses the Silicon Valley World Internet Center, a for-profit think tank and high-tech showcase.

CEO Susan Duggan invited everyone to the center's weekly event: the Thursday evening Pub, a casual opportunity to net work with Internet bigwigs. The event is open to the public.

"I came on the tour to see where the computer industry started and grew up," said Glen Schimelpfenig, a retired engineer from El Cerrito. "Who would have ever known all of this even existed?"

Many of the Valley's high-tech firms are not open to the public; a few, like Apple and Intel, offer visitors small samplings of the inside with stores and mini-museums. Genentech offers limited tours to the public.

At the Intel Museum -- more a cubicle than a room -- only a few visitors ventured in to learn the details of how micro chips are constructed from silicon, the Valley's namesake.

Instead, most mumbled at the museum's minute size. "Like its incredibly shrinking microchip," joked Winslow.

Intel is planning a new 5,000-squarefoot museum, according to company officials, who said it would open in July.

Barbara Harley, the director of the International Business Incubator, addressed the group at San Jose's Tech Museum of Innovation.

Other tour highlights included the Apple Store at company headquarters in Cupertino and the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field.

For Eric Schine, an investor from San Francisco, the tour was a little bit of a disappointment, because it didn't take him anywhere he couldn't have gone on his own -- and it completely skipped Genen tech.

By 5 p.m., the bus slowly began the trek back, north through evening commute traffic on 101. The omnipresent bill boards espousing the latest geekspeak and electronic gizmos seemed a fitting end to a Silicon Valley tour.

"The tour was an opportunity for me to fill in gaps of knowledge," said Brenda Boswell, a retired administrator from Walnut Creek.

"What I've learned is that a bomb in Silicon Valley would do a lot more financial damage than one in San Francisco."

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