The AI Boom Is Pulling Tech Entrepreneurs Back to San Francisco

Doug Fulop’s and Jessie Fischer’s lives in Bend, Ore., were idyllic. The couple moved there last year, working remotely in a 2,400-square-foot house surrounded by trees, with easy access to skiing, mountain biking and breweries. It was an upgrade from their former apartments in San Francisco, where a stranger once entered Mr. Fulop’s home after his lock didn’t properly latch.

But the pair of tech entrepreneurs are now on their way back to the Bay Area, driven by a key development: the artificial intelligence boom.

Mr. Fulop and Ms. Fischer are both starting companies that use A.I. technology and are looking for co-founders. They tried to make it work in Bend, but after too many eight-hour drives to San Francisco for hackathons, networking events and meetings, they decided to move back when their lease ends in August.

“The A.I. boom has brought the energy back into the Bay that was lost during Covid,” said Mr. Fulop, 34.

The couple are part of a growing group of boomerang entrepreneurs who see opportunity in San Francisco’s predicted demise. The tech industry is more than a year into its worst slump in a decade, with layoffs and a glut of empty offices. The pandemic also spurred a wave of migration to places with lower taxes, fewer Covid restrictions, safer streets and more space. And tech workers have been among the most vocal groups to criticize the city for its worsening problems with drugs, housing and crime.

But such busts are almost always followed by another boom. And with the latest wave of A.I. technology — known as generative A.I., which produces text, images and video in response to prompts — there’s too much at stake to miss out.

Investors have already announced $10.7 billion in funding for generative A.I. start-ups within the first three months of this year, a thirteenfold increase from a year earlier, according to PitchBook, which tracks start-ups. Tens of thousands of tech workers recently laid off by big tech companies are now eager to join the next big thing. On top of that, much of the A.I. technology is open source, meaning companies share their work and allow anyone to build on it, which encourages a sense of community.

“Hacker houses,” where people create start-ups, are springing up in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood, known as “Cerebral Valley” because it is the center of the A.I. scene. And every night someone is hosting a hackathon, meet-up or demo focused on the technology.

In March, days after the prominent start-up OpenAI unveiled a new version of its A.I. technology, an “emergency hackathon” organized by a pair of entrepreneurs drew 200 participants, with almost as many on the waiting list. That same month, a networking event hastily organized over Twitter by Clement Delangue, the chief executive of the A.I. start-up Hugging Face, attracted more than 5,000 people and two alpacas to San Francisco’s Exploratorium museum, earning it the nickname “Woodstock of A.I.”

Madisen Taylor, who runs operations for Hugging Face and organized the event alongside Mr. Delangue, said its communal vibe had mirrored that of Woodstock. “Peace, love, building cool A.I.,” she said.

Taken together, the activity is enough to draw back people like Ms. Fischer, who is starting a company that uses A.I. in the hospitality industry. She and Mr. Fulop got involved in the 350-person tech scene in Bend, but they missed the inspiration, hustle and connections in San Francisco.

“There’s just nowhere else like the Bay,” Ms. Fischer, 32, said.

Jen Yip, who has been organizing events for tech workers over the past six years, said that what had been a quiet San Francisco tech scene during the pandemic began changing last year in tandem with the A.I. boom. At nightly hackathons and demo days, she watched people meet their co-founders, secure investments, win over customers and network with potential hires.

“I’ve seen people come to an event with an idea they want to test and pitch it to 30 different people in the course of one night,” she said.

Ms. Yip, 42, runs a secret group of 800 people focused on A.I. and robotics called Society of Artificers. Its monthly events have become a hot ticket, often selling out within an hour. “People definitely try to crash,” she said.

Her other speaker series, Founders You Should Know, features leaders of A.I. companies speaking to an audience of mostly engineers looking for their next gig. The last event had more than 2,000 applicants for 120 spots, Ms. Yip said.

Bernardo Aceituno moved his company, Stack AI, to San Francisco in January to be part of the start-up accelerator Y Combinator. He and his co-founders had planned to base the company in New York after the three-month program ended, but decided to stay in San Francisco. The community of fellow entrepreneurs, investors and tech talent that they found was too valuable, he said.

“If we move out, it’s going to be very hard to re-create in any other city,” Mr. Aceituno, 27, said. “Whatever you’re looking for is already here.”

After operating remotely for several years, Y Combinator has started encouraging start-ups in its program to move to San Francisco. Out of a recent batch of 270 start-ups, 86 percent participated locally, the company said.

“Hayes Valley truly became Cerebral Valley this year,” Gary Tan, Y Combinator’s chief executive, said at a demo day in April.

The A.I. boom is also luring back founders of other kinds of tech companies. Brex, a financial technology start-up, declared itself “remote first” early in the pandemic, closing its 250-person office in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. The company’s founders, Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi, decamped for Los Angeles.

But when generative A.I. began taking off last year, Mr. Dubugras, 27, was eager to see how Brex could adopt the technology. He quickly realized that he was missing out on the coffees, casual conversations and community happening around A.I. in San Francisco, he said.

In May, Mr. Dubugras moved to Palo Alto, Calif., and began working from a new, pared-down office a few blocks from Brex’s old one. San Francisco’s high office vacancy rate meant the company paid a quarter of what it had been paying in rent before the pandemic.

Seated under a neon sign in Brex’s office that read “Growth Mindset,” Mr. Dubugras said he had been on a steady schedule of coffee meetings with people working on A.I. since his return. He has hired a Stanford Ph.D. student to tutor him on the topic.

“Knowledge is concentrated at the bleeding edge,” he said.

Mr. Fulop and Ms. Fischer said they would miss their lives in Bend, where they could ski or mountain bike on their lunch breaks. But getting two start-ups off the ground requires an intense blend of urgency and focus.

In the Bay Area, Ms. Fischer attends multiday events where people stay up all night working on their projects. And Mr. Fulop runs into engineers and investors he knows every time he walks by a coffee shop. They are considering living in suburbs like Palo Alto and Woodside, which has easy access to nature, in addition to San Francisco.

“I’m willing to sacrifice the amazing tranquillity of this place for being around that ambition, being inspired, knowing there are a ton of awesome people to work with that I can bump into,” Mr. Fulop said. Living in Bend, he added, “honestly just felt like early retirement.”

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