OTC News Archive

UT’s new champion of innovation

Silicon Valley legend Robert Metcalfe is making himself at home in Austin, planning his future at the university

Kirk Ladendorf, Austin American-Statesman
February 19, 2011

Bob Metcalfe, just arrived from Boston, is reconnoitering Austin by foot, phone, bike and, grudgingly, automobile.

The 64-year-old legendary tech inventor, entrepreneur and pundit has walked from his new office on the University of Texas campus to keep a lunch appointment at McCormick & Schmick’s downtown. He has ridden his bike over the hills of RM 2222 west of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1)—once, but never again on that road. “It’s suicidal,” he concluded.

He has even driven up to UT’s J.J. Pickle Research Campus in North Austin, but he wishes it were closer to the main campus.

He gave a speech to local entrepreneurs at IBM Corp.’s Austin campus in which he called for stronger linkages between “town and gown.”

He’s also had lunch at Whole Foods Market’s downtown store with co-CEO John Mackey, who showed him examples of the company’s efforts to constantly improve its operations.

“John just rolled out the innovation story for me,” Metcalfe said.

Metcalfe is the first-ever professor of innovation at UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering. He comes to Austin from Boston, where he lived for the past two decades as publisher and columnist for InfoWorld and a venture capitalist. He spent most of the 1970s and 1980s in Silicon Valley, where he rose to fame.

Metcalfe arrived in Austin with the idea of bolstering the tech startup activity coming out of UT and finding a way to do it “at scale,” which means big. Now he has to figure out how to make that happen.

He doesn’t teach his first course until next fall, and he is still exploring what format that class will take and what niche it will fill. UT, he is discovering, has lots of classes and programs that revolve around business startups.

He admires the school’s marketing slogan: “What starts here changes the world.”

“I am the changes-the-world guy,” he says.

Being Metcalfe, one of the towering figures involved in the Internet revolution, he will do things with his own style, which includes ample quantities of wit, whimsy, insight and intellectual passion and a fair amount of energy left over for remembering past feuds.

Metcalfe definitely has been a “changes-the-world” guy. In 1973, as a staff member at Xerox Corp.’s famed Palo Alto Research Center, he co-invented Ethernet, which has become the dominant technology for tying computers together in networks. Then he founded 3Com Corp., which built Ethernet into a huge new business.

When Metcalfe spoke at IBM at the start of February, he responded to a question by describing in detail how and why he waged business warfare with IBM in the 1980s and 1990s over competing ideas about how to link computers. Metcalfe was urging that Ethernet become the dominant industry standard, and IBM was backing its own idea, called Token Ring.

“For 20 years of my life, IBM was the enemy,” he told the crowd, but he acknowledged that Big Blue has changed considerably since those days.

“I was poking at a wound that is barely healed,” he recalled several days after the talk. “Token Ring has been dead for a long time. It is dead, dead, dead. And that makes me very happy.”

The IBM event was fun, and the audience was receptive and smart.

“It was bridge-building” to the community, Metcalfe said. “I saw five people there that I hadn’t seen in 20 years.”

He likes Austin and UT and appreciates the warm welcome, but he suspects that new conflicts could show up as he goes about his new job.

“It is a very hospitable place,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I have found nobody who is evil and nobody who hates me yet.

“I am sure that is going to happen. There is going to be somebody out there who is out to get me. I just want to make sure it is the right person. You have to choose your enemies carefully.”

That seems to capture a part of Metcalfe—incredibly smart, energetic, streetwise, creative, insightful and engaging. And also ready and willing to do combat with whoever lines up against him.

A catalyst for innovation

Engineering Dean Gregory Fenves sees Metcalfe as “a catalyst for the innovation that is happening in Austin and at the university. He is going to be working with faculty and students about what are the directions and applications for technology that have commercial value.

“He is going to help us do a better job of connecting the university to the Austin and Texas ecosystems, the entrepreneurs and mentors who can work with faculty and students and move ideas into useful applications.

“And the third thing is: We need capital. Innovation needs ideas and people and capital. Bob is a venture capitalist, and he will help us there.”

Metcalfe has been involved with Polaris Venture Partners in Waltham, Mass., since 2001. He remains on the board of five companies that Polaris has invested in.

But he cautions that he is not in Austin scouting new deals for Polaris. That would defeat his goal of working and engaging with local venture investors to become more involved with UT.

Since he has come to town, Metcalfe has learned that there are a lot of programs at UT that aim to teach and mold would-be entrepreneurs.

He has talked at length with Isaac Barchas , director of UT’s Austin Technology Incubator , and promised to help with some of its programs. He also has had several talks with Rob Adams, who directs Texas Venture Labs at the McCombs School of Business. Adams’ program involves UT graduate students with startup companies.

“We are trying to figure out what the synergistic fit is,” Adams said. “He is here for the same reason I am. There is a lot of untapped potential here.”

Barchas expects Metcalfe will become a big man on campus and in the community for commercialization. In the five years that Barchas has been here, he says, UT has been shifting noticeably toward encouraging more commercialization of its technical discoveries.

“Bob is in a really good position to be able to define his role for maximum impact, and that is exactly what he is doing,” Barchas said. “He is not coming here for a retirement job. My impression is he really wants to get things done and accelerate what is already a good trend at the university.”

Metcalfe is hardly a neophyte to academia. He holds a doctorate in computer science from Harvard, although he has a feud with the university. “They hate engineers,” he said.

He is much fonder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology , where he earned two bachelor’s degrees, in electrical engineering and business. He is a life trustee at MIT and has been a close observer of and participant in its vibrant entrepreneurial scene.

His venture firm, Polaris, has worked successfully at helping to commercialize technical discoveries made at MIT, Harvard and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Metcalfe expects to stay in his new job at UT for roughly 10 years, but he will spend his summers in Boston, where he owns a house, and Maine, where he owns a cabin.

Choosing Austin

His wife, Robyn, who recently earned her doctorate, will join him in Austin, where she will teach history at UT.

Robyn, who is an avid triathlete, suggested to her husband a few years ago that they think about moving to a warmer climate because their two children were grown and in college.

Their early research of potential college towns in warm climates led them to look more closely at Austin and Los Angeles.

Metcalfe, who was in Austin last summer to talk at National Instruments’ NI World event, arranged to meet with Fenves, and UT’s recruiting effort started.

One reason the Metcalfes decided on Austin was Whole Foods. “We are Whole Foods groupies,” he said.

10-year attention span

While Metcalfe figures out how his first course will take shape in the fall, he also expects to be involved in research and writing projects on innovation.

He already owes a 2,000-word essay to a UT online magazine. The focus of the essay will be on the ecology of innovation, and he expects it will become the basis for a keynote speech he will give in Boston to a meeting of the National Venture Capital Association in April.

“Innovation is an ecology rather than a system because it wasn’t designed. It kind of evolved,” he said. “So it is messy, like an ecology, rather than pristine like a system.

“And it involves fiercely competing teams of the following players: research professors, graduating students, scaling entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, strategic partners and early adopters.

“And those are exactly the kind of teams that built the Internet. Cisco Systems was such a team. And Amazon was such a team. And my own company, 3Com, was such a team.”

“That ecology is what I want to turn my attention to—its functioning and malfunctioning.”

One of the aspects he wants to look at is the downsizing of the venture capital industry.

“In America, it is going from 1,000 to 500, roughly speaking. It is collapsing right now. But the numbers of angel investors are on the rise. Angel investors are important now. They are active, and they attack venture capitalists all the time. So there is a pendulum there.”

He must put more meat on the bones of those early thoughts over the next month. His deadline for the essay/speech is written boldly on the white board in his UT office.

He sees plenty of good work ahead as a professor, a job he expects to last about a decade, which is about the length of each of his four previous careers – as inventor, business executive, publisher-pundit and venture capitalist.

“I have about a 10-year attention span,” he said.

[ Bob Metcalfe ]