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Bob Metcalfe Keynote at #semiconwest

Bob Metcalfe Keynote at #semiconwest
by Paul McLellan on 07-10-2014 at 9:00 am

 My PhD is in distributed file systems so one of the key networking papers was Metcalfe and Boggs, 1976. It was titled Ethernet: Distributed Packet Switching for Local Computer Networks. This was the paper that introduced the world to Ethernet and to Bob Metcalfe. He was on stage yesterday here at Semicon West to give the afternoon keynote. Dressed in a suit and tie…and bright red running shoes. The talk was titled Innovation with Startups Out of Research Universities but it was really a little retrospective of Bob’s life and his ideas about how to foster and manage innovation.

In the early part of he worked on Arpanet and Project Mac at Harvard where he (eventually, he failed the first time) earned his PhD. He then worked at Xerox PARC during its heyday when a good fraction of the top computer scientists in the world worked there. PARC invented the Alto, which was a personal computer with a GUI and a mouse (although the mouse was actually invented by Doug Englebart up the road at SRI). Bob was given the task of linking all these computers together and worked with David Boggs, a graduate student. They took some of the ideas of the Aloha project (which linked the campuses of the university of Hawaii spread around different islands) and adapted them for wired connectivity and this was Ethernet. Bob pointed out that it would have been nice to use radio even then (WiFi 20 years earlier) but radios were too big, too slow and too expensive.

Bob left PARC and founded 3Com to manufacture networking equipment for the growing demand for both local area and wide area networks. Bob then became a venture capitalist and most recently became professor of innovation at the university of Texas in Austin.

Bob reckons that successful technology startups require three things:

  • People with the idea and the drive to implement the idea. Most ideas will turn out to be failures, even more so if someone other than the person who came up with it is not also the implementer. I like to say that the best way to transfer technology is in people’s heads. Research is almost all done at the top 100 universities in the US so the people with the idea will almost always turn out to be grad (or postdoc) students.
  • People with the skill to scale a company, preferably having done it before.
  • Money. VCs, angels, corporate investors. In fact Bob reckons that the best in an early stage startup is some money from the financial industry, some from the university where the inventors graduated, and some from a teaching customer who wants the product.

    Bob also talked about the Bayh-Dole act. Prior to 1980, if your research was funded by the federal government then all the intellectual property rights had to be assigned to the government. This turned out to be a bad idea since the government is hopeless at actually capitalizing on it. The Bayh-Dole act changed the rules and the rights would instead be owned by the university employing the researchers. So all the universities set up technology licensing arms but they have been a mixed success since their goals are diffuse from benefiting humankind, making the most licensing revenue, making the product most likely to succeed (primarily by back-licensing it to the inventors). Bob reckons Bayh-Dole didn’t go far enough and it would have been much better to let the rights be retained by the professors and students who did the research.

    Oh, and before you think that all these predictions are accurate since they come from an industry luminary, Bob has famously had to eat his words before. In 1995 he predicted that the internet would suffer a catastrophic failure in the following year. When it did not, at the 1999 conference on the worldwide web he took a sheet of paper with his prediction on, put it in a blender with some water, and literally “ate his own words.”

    Earlier this year Bob did an AMA on Reddit All Your Ethernets Belong to Me. It is here.

    More articles by Paul McLellan…

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