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Max Levchin: Innovation Has Returned to the Valley

The co-founder of PayPal and Slide speaks out about innovation in Silicon Valley. And this time, he's hopeful.
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Max Levchin has had a change of heart. 

Two years ago, Max Levchin, the co-founder of PayPal, stood on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt--the same stage from which he spoke on Tuesday in San Francisco--and declared that the state of innovation in the United States was, well, pretty damn pathetic. 

"Innovation in this country is somewhere between dire straits and dead," he told the audience in 2011. "Innovation ultimately ends up being about solving very hard problems. If you're trying to build one more wrinkle on the Angry Birds idea... you're not solving a very hard problem."

But in the last two years, things have changed. "Since then, I've seen many [innovative ideas]," including a start-up in stealth mode that's trying to cure cancer, Levchin said today at Disrupt. "I've funded a number, too. It's been revitalizing." He didn't mention any specific investments he's made, but he's recently backed companies including Zendrive, an app designed to improve the driving experience by crunching data, and SmartThings, a start-up that has developed kits to turn just about anything in your home into a sensor you can program.

Another reason for his change of heart? He's started his own company--one that he believes has the potential to completely shake up our national healthcare system. 

Last month, Levchin raised $6 million to start Glow, an iOS app that theoretically helps women get pregnant. Glow is indeed a fairly ambitious concept. By inputting various data (from vitamin intake to temperature levels), Glow gives women "an estimate of their fertility window via a calendar and an indication of the "percent chance" of getting pregnant."

"Glow is really meant to help you conceive," he said today. "It is a living, breathing thing designed for two people who want to have a child... Glow is a profoundly important project."

When I spoke with Levchin for Inc.'s "Audacious Company" story earlier this year, I asked him how he defines a company that's tackling important problems.  

"An audacious company is one that measures its success or failure by the number of people whose lives are improved as a result of its work," he told me. "It's all about the vision. Where is the company trying to go, and why? It's a pretty great way to consider whether you've spent your time wisely or not."

The message for founders? If you're feeling like the companies around you aren't tackling the big, hairy, problems you encounter in your life, the answer--as Levchin might say--is obvious. Go fix it yourself. 

"Silicon Valley is all about meeting those 20-year-olds trying to change the world," he says. 

Last updated: Sep 10, 2013




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