Google calls it Project Sand Hill.
Since 2012, Suman Prasad and his team have worked with various Silicon Valley venture capital firms to identify “rocketship” startups before they really take off, and they help plug them into the Google machine. They help them build apps for Android phones, hook into Android Pay, and make use of countless other Google services, from Google Maps to Google ads. Prasad started the project in his Google “20 Percent Time,” but it has since grown into something much bigger. He’s now director of startups and VC partnerships, and at any given time, Project Sand Hill now serves a good 100 US startups, plus about 30 abroad, including places like Israel, India, and China.
Google also runs its own venture capital arm, GV, but it wants another way of tracking the ever-changing tech landscape–and keeping its increasingly enormous company at the forefront of innovation. “The speed at which startups go from being a small startup to becoming a material company was accelerating,” Prasad says. “We wanted to partner up with companies before they came up with the next big thing.”
As it continues to evolve from Silicon Valley disruptor into corporate giant, Google is looking for just about any way of keeping itself at the cutting edge. It has even reorganized itself into a new company. Alphabet is a way of cultivating the company’s internal “moonshots,” and Project Sand Hill is a way of keeping as close as possible to moonshots on the outside. In the end, this may be a path to strategic acquisitions. Plus, it can help maintain the profile of all those well-established Google technologies, like Android and Maps. This kind of thing is common practice across the tech world. Apple just opened a new accelerator in India meant to drive new iOS apps in the country.
Current members of the program include ticketing platform Eventbrite, fitness-focused My Fitness Pal, and the last-minute hotel booking company Hotel Tonight. And according to Google, eleven Project Sand Hill companies have become “unicorns”—startups valued at over a billion dollars–since joining the program, including Eventbrite, Houzz and Lyft. About half of the participating companies have gone on to raise an additional $7.5 billion in funding.
But where the program may be most useful is overseas. For Google–like so many other American tech companies–the big growth opportunity is in places like India and, just maybe, China, which has so very many people but is traditionally unfriendly to American tech companies. The best way into China is to partner with a Chinese company.
Is this a good thing for the startups on the other side of the equation? It is, says Rouz Jazayeri, a partner at Kleiner Perkins, who introduced Google to My Fitness Pal. Initially, he was skeptical, but he quickly saw the value. “It delivered on its promise,” he says. “We had direct relationships and direct engagement with multiple product groups inside Google, and the company made that happen within a very short time frame.” This includes the teams running Google Fit, Android Wear, and Google Play. According to Mike Lee, the company’s CEO, it also got early access to new developer tools and advice on how to optimize Google ads.
That just shows you how much Google values these relationships. If companies use its services, it sees, at least to a certain extent, where they’re going. It gets a lay of the land. This is the same side-benefit of running a cloud computing service: a window into the wide market. When you get big, you want as many of those windows as you can find.