OTC News Archive

Innovating innovation at UT

by Renee Hopkins, Texas Enterprise
February 15, 2011

Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of the Ethernet, founder of 3Com, and partner in Polaris Ventures, moved from Boston to Austin in January to become Professor of Innovation and Murchison Fellow of Free Enterprise in the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. He recently spoke with Renee Hopkins about his plans for fostering innovation and entrepreneurship at UT.

Do you consider “innovation” an actual discipline to be studied?

I think of innovation as a system that includes research professors, graduating students, scaling entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, strategic investors, and early adopters. My theory is that groups of people form these fiercely competing teams that then accomplish innovation.

For example, Cisco, a company just like the system I described, built the modern Internet. I believe this is the most productive innovation system we have in the U.S., which is somewhat controversial. I’m writing a paper about that, which will list hypotheses about things that need looking at in the care and maintenance of this system. Actually, it’s really not a system, since it wasn’t designed. It’s more an ecology, because it evolved.

As the UT motto goes, “What starts here changes the world.” I’m in the “changes the world” part of the business. The Deans of the McCombs School of Business, the Cockrell School of Engineering, and the College of Natural Sciences wanted me to come here to help erase the boundaries of the different schools and colleges at UT, since those boundaries encumber our ability to create ideas and get our ideas to change the world.

You’ve said “Professor of Innovation” is your fifth career. How did you get from your last career, which was in venture capital, to here?

I’d been innovating in every career. As a VC, as a publisher, as an electrical engineer, as an entrepreneur—all these roles involved innovation. I’d like to go “meta” on innovation, to make innovation itself a study, itself susceptible to innovation. In order words, innovate on innovation—look at this ecosystem that I’ve enjoyed for some decades and critique it, make it better.

Some years ago I wrote an article for MIT Technology Review magazine, “Invention is a Flower, Innovation is a Weed,” to draw the distinction between this hothouse thing that you do in a lab and the way innovation happens in the real world. Invention is very persnickety. You invent things but then when you try to change the world with them, you become a weed because nobody actually wants innovation. You have to be resilient and persistent like weeds are.

How did you end up in the engineering school, as opposed to the business school or the natural science school?

Though there may be others, there are four schools that I already know are a part of innovation: Engineering, Science, Business, and Communication. But I needed to be affiliated with a department in a school or college. Since I’m an electrical and computer engineer, the Electrical Engineering and Computing (ECE) department is my natural home, although I’m working on a university-wide effort.

What does an engineer bring to innovation as opposed to a marketer or a communicator or a management person?

Innovation requires all those functions—marketing, communications, engineering, management—to participate with each other. To make progress on innovation requires that you break down the boundaries between these functions. The nerds and the suits have to get along in order to build a company. And the nerds don’t like the suits and the suits don’t like the nerds, and that’s a very frequent cause of failure in companies because the suits disrespect the nerds and the nerds disrespect the suits and down the drain they go together.

I don’t think engineers are special. They’re on the team. However, I will now contradict myself and argue briefly that engineers are at the core of it all, because engineers are by definition problem-solvers. Scientists find new knowledge. Engineers apply new knowledge to solving problems. If you’re in the innovation business, you’re applying new knowledge to solve problems. People who apply old knowledge to old ways are not innovating.

How do you teach someone to think like an innovator?

You can teach prospective innovators vision and passion. If you’re going to start a company, you need vision because it’s part of your competitive advantage and because you need to know where you’re going. You need passion because it takes a really long time to build a company and if you’re not passionate, you’ll lose interest and wander away.

But you also need management expertise somewhere in your company. There are two kinds of entrepreneurs, I’ve noticed. People like Steve Jobs have a driving ambition to accomplish something and in his case make great products. Bill Gates had a mission to put a personal computer on every desk. I had a mission to fill the world with Ethernet.

And then there’s the other kind of entrepreneur, who you find in business schools. “I want to start a company, any company. Just tell me and I’ll go start it.” They don’t have a mission other than they want to start and build a company. If you’re one kind of entrepreneur, it’s hard to understand the other kind. But as I said previously, when you build a company, you need a team. You need both kinds of people—those with that driving ambition and those who are going to make it all work. The latter may not share the driving ambition at the beginning, but they quickly adopt it.

How are the concepts of entrepreneurship and innovation related?

Innovation includes entrepreneurship. There are many forms of innovation, only some of which include entrepreneurship. My particular specialty is technological and entrepreneurial innovation at scale. “Technological” means it involves some sort of science or engineering and the development of a new technology. “Entrepreneurial” means you’re starting a company to accomplish the innovation.

What I noticed and learned in Silicon Valley is that most of the people there start building their companies from Day 1 to be large companies or what I call “scale” companies. They’re not building restaurants or beauty parlors or lifestyle businesses or carpentry shops. They’re going for Intel, Microsoft, or Google size, and they start on Day 1 to build it that way. If that’s your goal, you make different decisions. You raise money differently. You recruit different people.

That’s the kind of innovation that I’m focused on: technological, entrepreneurial innovation, at scale.

How will your vision change The University of Texas at Austin?

A planning technique I call “mission, objective, strategies, and tactics” worked for me at 3Com. You spend some time figuring out your mission and your objectives, and then the strategies and tactics to accomplish them. A critical point to this technique is that an objective has to have both a timeframe and a number. For example, at 3Com my objective was to do an IPO at five years. Here, my objective is to see scale companies coming out of UT. I want to create an atmosphere that enables people at UT to want to start companies that will change the world.

I want to do three things that I think will help accomplish this. One is to erase the boundaries between schools, or rather, transcend the boundaries. Two, develop an entrepreneurial culture among the faculty. Three, connect with the Austin entrepreneurial community, which is remarkably detached from UT. The ones that I’ve met are largely UT alums who are disappointed with this disconnect but haven’t given up. They say, “I’m ready to help.” We should tap into that.

I just got here and I’m proud of our football team. Even this year, UT could have beaten any football team I know in Boston, except maybe the Patriots. It would be cool if UT was known as much for its entrepreneurial or innovation environment as it is for football. That’s my vision—that we can be as proud of the great companies UT produces as we are of our football. I’ve got to find or create some academic structure that draws faculty in, draws students in, and draws the entrepreneurial and VC community in. Then we’ll become the NCAA champions of innovation.

[ Texas Enterprise ]