The Bay Area is in the midst of a corporate feeding frenzy.
Since 2010, Google (GOOG) has gobbled up nearly 200 businesses here and across the country, a staggering buying binge averaging more than one deal every week. Other local companies have been on the prowl, too.
Last year, Facebook, Twitter and Cisco Systems (CSCO) -- along with the Mountain View search giant -- were among the nation's top five purchasers of privately held tech firms, typically small startups that are the most common tech acquisition target. Overall, Bay Area businesses did 329 such deals last year, far more than any other region, according to research firm PrivCo.
Many of these investments signal a fundamental change in Silicon Valley's culture of innovation. Facing intense competition, companies here frequently fear that if they take time to develop a product, a rival will beat them to the market. So instead of laboring to create something in their labs -- long the tradition -- they often simply buy another business that's already started or completed the work.
"It just allows technology to evolve more rapidly," said Chad Seiler, an acquisition expert at consulting firm KPMG. "It's essentially a supplement to R & D," he said, referring to research and development.
PrivCo analyst Douglas Weltman said it also may reflect a paranoia peculiar to tech companies.
"It's an industry particularly affected by a heightened anxiety of falling behind, of obsolescence," he said.
While corporate acquisitions are nothing new to the Bay Area -- and the pace of purchases varies from year to year -- they have picked up lately, according to Greg Mischou, of investment bank Woodside Capital Partners.
"Clearly companies have expanded their capabilities through acquisitions," he said, adding, "it can be very dangerous to miss out on certain market opportunities."
Some deals in recent years have turned sour, including Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) $11 billion purchase of British software firm Autonomy in 2011. HP later wrote off $8.8 billion from the investment, saying it had been misled about Autonomy's value, and the revelation led to a shake-up of HP's board. Nonetheless, HP is still shopping for companies, and the fear of such missteps hasn't deterred others, including Google.
It's difficult finding multiyear data on the most active buyers of all types of businesses nationwide, but the search firm has to be high on the list. Google declined to comment. But according to its regulatory filings, it has bought 196 companies for a total of $18.54 billion from 2010 through June of this year. The biggest was its $12.4 billion purchase in 2012 of phone business Motorola Mobility. Other deals have given Google capabilities ranging from displaying maps, ads and video to editing photos, streaming music and providing airline information.
By helping companies produce innovative products quicker, acquisitions often benefit consumers, experts say. The transactions also can be lucrative for founders of the companies purchased. And joining a larger corporation can be a relief for those in struggling startups, said Max Ventilla, co-founder of San Francisco social-media search service Aardvark, which Google bought for $50 million in 2010.
"To work in a big company is less stress than to fight for your life," he said.
Facebook has bought more than three dozen companies since 2005, including photo-sharing service Instagram for $512 million last year. Facebook executive Gary Johnson said the Menlo Park company mostly does deals to pick up talented employees but also sometimes to enter new market segments.
Even Apple (AAPL) -- celebrated for its innovations -- has gotten much of its technology through acquisitions. The Cupertino company declined to comment. But it reportedly has bought at least 48 companies since 1988, getting everything from microchip and mapping technologies to voice, face and gesture-recognition software.
Since 2005, five of the nation's 10 biggest tech-company acquisitions were done by some of Silicon Valley's mightiest corporations -- Hewlett-Packard, Intel (INTC) and Oracle (ORCL) -- according to the Boston Consulting Group, a business advisory firm. That corresponds with a study by another consulting firm, McKinsey, which found that the larger companies get, the more they rely on acquisitions to keep growing.
And the more companies do such deals, the more luck they have with them, according to Fortuna Advisors, which calls Cisco "one of the world's best serial acquirers."
The San Jose computer networking company has bought 167 companies since 1993, obtaining everything from video and cyber security products to wireless network and digital signal-processing technologies.
"It's been a big way for us to have entered into the five or six areas we consider priorities," said Hilton Romanski, who heads its mergers and acquisitions. He noted that Cisco still develops its own products. But he said it only does so now if it makes sense, adding, "you've got to be brutally candid with yourself about how quickly you can get to what the customer is asking for."
Contact Steve Johnson at email@example.com or 408-920-5043. Follow him at Twitter.com/steveatmercnews.
Google is one of the nation's most aggressive purchasers of other companies. From 2010 through the first half of this year, it snapped up 196 companies for a total of $18.5 billion. Here is a year-by-year breakdown of those acquisitions:
2013: 16 deals through June, totaling $1.19 billion. Included $847 million purchase of mobile map-application company Waze Limited.
2012: 53 deals totaling $13.57 billion. Included $12.4 billion purchase of Motorola Mobility, Motorola's phone business.
2011: 79 deals totaling $1.97 billion. Included $676 million purchase of airline flight-information firm ITA.
2010: 48 deals totaling $1.81 billion. Included $681 million purchase of mobile display-ads firm AdMob.
Source: Google's regulatory filings
Silicon Valley leads nation in acquisitions
Silicon Valley businesses topped the nation last year with 329 private tech-company purchases. New York businesses were second with 151.
Private valley tech companies also were the most often bought. A total of 226 were acquired here in 2012. New York was second with 100.
Here are the nation's top five buyers of private tech firms in 2012:
Google -- 16
Facebook -- 16
Groupon -- 12
Twitter -- 10
Cisco Systems -- 10