BOSTON – “I was an early contributor to the Internet even before Al Gore got involved,” said Dr. Robert Metcalfe, who joined Polaris Venture Partners as a venture partner on Jan. 1, 2001.
Metcalfe does not claim to have invented the Internet (he does claim to have invented Ethernet) but he did work on the project starting in 1969. He said Arpanet, as the technology was then called, was intended to be a type of time-share for servers through dial-up connections and terminals, but after a year or so, the developers discovered the real use – electronic mail.
Metcalfe said he never thought in 1969 that the Internet would have developed into what it has become. “The people who say so are lying,” he said.
Shortly after that, Metcalfe was working on Ethernet in a Xerox Corp. research facility in Palo Alto, Calif. He had researched the preliminary technology while working on his Ph.D. at Harvard University, and he fathered Ethernet technology through its development over the next two decades. “It [the Ethernet] was invented on May 26, 1973 in a memo I wrote,” he said light-heartedly.
In 1979, he founded 3Com Corp., and as chief executive officer, steered the infrastructure company through the 80s as Ethernet took off commercially in 1983 and 3Com went public in 1984.
“After the time there [at 3Com], I was done being an executive,” Metcalfe said. He wanted to do something else in the same industry.
In 1992, he entered the publishing world with International Data Group (IDG), publisher of Computer World, Industry Standard and 300 other magazines in 90 countries. IDG also publishes books such as the “For Dummies” series and produces conferences like Macworld.
At this point, Metcalfe said he had been an engineer, a scientist, an entrepreneur and an executive.
“Pat McGovern [founder and chairman of IDG] had the idea I would be a good publisher. That was a stretch, but it worked,” he said, adding “I learned how to sell advertising.”
Since he joined IDG, where he is still a director, Metcalfe has had several roles, most visibly were his times as the publisher, CEO and columnist of InfoWorld. “In the end, I had over 629,000 readers a week and that felt good – except for the death threats,” he joked, but after eight years, Metcalfe stopped writing the column. “I was finished being a pundit,” Metcalfe said. “I wanted to do something else.”
Metcalfe said venture capital interested him, and he learned about Polaris through several connections.
“I get to keep dealing with entrepreneurs who are my favorite people,” he said.
Going forward, Metcalfe will split his time evenly between Polaris and IDG, where he also holds a board seat at IDG Ventures, the company’s information technology-focused VC arm.
Metcalfe said IDG Ventures acts more like a traditional VC firm than some corporate VC groups, because it is charged with making money rather than generating strategic alliances for IDG.
Polaris invests in early-stage information technology and medical companies, and Metcalfe’s addition is one of several recent changes at the shop (VCJ, December 2000, page 28).
“I’m an engineer,” Metcalfe said. “So, I believe I’ll be valuable in evaluating technology.” He said he will start working with infrastructure deals. “I’ll tend to do MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] deals,” he laughed. “I’m an MIT man, and Polaris has done more MIT deals than anybody.” Metcalfe said he would also like to work with a medical company when he learns about the industry.
Metcalfe predicts the next VC boom will come in 2004, based on a gut feeling and his experience with the personal computer bust of 1983, but he is not guaranteeing it. “The last thing in the world we need is another know-it-all venture capitalist, and I don’t plan to be one of those,” he said.