Don't look for the gilded road to fortune. Look for passion.
SEBASTOPOL, Calif.--Forget Silicon Valley. Traditional wisdom is that it represents the model for American innovation: a hotbed of young entrepreneurs with easy access to capital from a large pool of savvy investors.
Think again: The World Wide Web was started by Englishman Tim Berners-Lee because he was frustrated with how hard it was to share information at CERN, the huge physics lab in Switzerland where he worked. Linux was developed by a Finnish college student who wrote the operating system "just for fun" and is only one example of thousands of open-source software projects begun around the world by people who were writing software to "scratch their own itch" and giving it away for free. Even the personal computer revolution, which took root in Silicon Valley, began with a bunch of hobbyists at the Homebrew Computer Club.
It turns out that many of the great waves of creative destruction that have reinvented Silicon Valley didn't start there. More important, they didn't even start with the profit motive.
I call these people "alpha geeks." They are smart enough to make technology do what they want rather than what its originator expected. The alpha geeks exercise an idea or a gadget, pushing it past its current limits, reinventing it and eventually paving the way for entrepreneurs who figure out how to create mainstream versions of their novel ideas.
I've watched this process now for better than 30 years as a computer book publisher, conference producer, technology activist and early-stage investor. I learned early on that many of the innovations behind my best-selling books weren't coming from companies but from individuals. Their ideas spread through a grassroots network of early adopters and tinkerers long before entrepreneurs and investors appeared on the scene to figure out how to make money from the idea.
The Internet developed in this early adopter Petri dish for more than 15 years before entrepreneurs and venture capitalists clicked on their first e-mail. I was publishing books on free and open-source software in the mid-1980s; Silicon Valley didn't get the open-source message till 1998.
Even recent venture booms, like the one around Web 2.0, a concept that my company popularized in 2004 to remind people that the Web had continued to evolve after the dot-com bust of 2001, missed the story till it was well underway. Key ideas and projects were born during the years when investors had given up on the Web. Only developers driven by a strong personal vision kept at it.
So where's the alpha-geek innovation happening today?
Yes, there are start-ups in these areas, but, more important, there's an enthusiast boom. The Maker Faire, an event O'Reilly Media launched in 2006 to celebrate the people playing at the interface of digital technology and the physical world, last year drew 65,000 attendees, including many families, to view the work of the 500 exhibiting "makers."
Or consider synthetic biology, where high school students are exploring the frontiers through events like the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition. When high-schoolers are doing genetic engineering, you know the future holds some big surprises!
We see innovators working from the outside to put flesh on the vision of government transparency articulated by the Obama administration. Software "hacks," like chicagocrime.org, one of the first Google Maps mash-ups, are becoming a prototype for how government data can be turned into new consumer services by start-ups like everyblock.com.
Tools for investigative journalism put together by nonprofits like the Sunlight Foundation presage the work of start-ups like Apture and Evri. And of course it's hard to ignore the fact that tools for grassroots activism, born out of political enthusiasm by a few "hackers" working for Howard Dean in 2004, turned into real products that helped win the national election only four years later.
Consider Greenbox, a start-up founded by Jonathan Gay, one of the creators of the ubiquitous Flash technology for online video and animation. After retiring following the acquisition of Macromedia by Adobe (nasdaq: ADBE - news - people ), he built an "off the grid" house (mainly because it was too expensive to bring power to his remote location). He designed some tools to visualize and manage his home power consumption--then realized that they could become the basis of a new business.
Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, thought by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world. O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar, "watches the alpha geeks" and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. He can also be found as @timoreilly on Twitter.