So, what about Bob? Engineer-scientist, early Internet developer, Ethernet inventor, entrepreneur, pundit, a man who eats his own words and, now, a venture capitalist: Bob Metcalfe has seen it all in 40 years on the front lines of engineering and technology. From his perch at Polaris Ventures, above Boston's high-tech corridor, Metcalfe recently sat down with EE Times executive editor Patrick Mannion to chat about his investments in optical, wireless/RF, hybrid fiber/coax and supercomputing companies. Along the way, he waxed eloquent on the future of the Internet, the rise of the blogosphere, the demise of print media, why engineers should not become venture capitalists and how to solve the energy crisis. Fasten your seat belts.
EE Times: What technologies excite you right now?
Bob Metcalfe: Anything to do with video and anything to do with latitudes and longitudes. GPS is spreading, so companies that produce, consume or manipulate information containing latitudes and longitudes are a big thing. It's exciting.
I'm looking at my first energy deal right now. I'm determined to get the world out of its current energy mess. I don't like being beholden to monopolists in foreign countries or to the crazies currently running the environmental groups.
EET: What are the options?
Metcalfe: Better [gas] mileage would help, nuclear would help. Removing pollutants would help, carbon sequestration would help.
EET: How many companies have you invested in as a venture capitalist?
Metcalfe: Five. First was Narad [100-Mbit/second service over hybrid fiber/ coax], then Ember [ZigBee], then Paratech [tunable circuits for RF front ends] and SiCortex [a supercomputing company designing a dense Linux cluster]. The fifth is Mintera [optical transport gear].
EET: How do you see the role of the VC?
Metcalfe: I began with a conceit that I have since tempered. VCs split their time between choosing companies and helping companies, and my conceit was that since I had built a successful company [3Com], I was going to be helpful. What I've learned over the past five years is that it's much more important to choose, rather than to be helpful. You have to do both, obviously, but if you're going to generate a big return for your investors, which is our job, then you have to be sure that you choose very carefully, as there's a limit to just how much help you can give a company.
EET: Did you expect rapid turnaround, and has that happened?
Metcalfe: There was a period during the bubble when rapid turnaround was the rule. Now it's the exception. We plan on five to seven years between initial investment and liquidity.
EET: Why did you become a VC?
Metcalfe: I had been a high-tech publisher and pundit for 10 years, and I was finished. I wanted to do something else but wanted to stay in the innovation business. Ten years is about the right time to do something new. So, I published my book, Internet Collapses and Other InfoWorld Punditry, based on columns I wrote over 10 years chronicling the rise and fall of the Internet. Then I went into the VC business, as it allowed me to stay in the innovation business.