Support the news

Boston Loses Influential Tech Pioneer To Austin02:27
Download

Play
Tech pioneer Bob Metcalfe, center, is leaving Boston to teach innovation at the University of Texas. (Warren123/Flickr)
Tech pioneer Bob Metcalfe, center, is leaving Boston to teach innovation at the University of Texas. (Warren123/Flickr)

There aren’t many people who can say they have truly eaten their words. But Bob Metcalfe can. The Boston tech pioneer once wrongly predicted the Internet was a fad. He later put those words on paper in a blender, whipped it up, and swallowed it.

He’s a bit of a showman. He invented Ethernet and is a mentor to local entrepreneurs.

Recently, in a small, dingy brick building in Cambridge, Metcalfe attended a product demonstration and party organized by a small start-up.

The company makes a milk refrigeration system that runs on solar power. But on this night it’s being used to chill beer.

Over bottles of Sam Adams and Stella, 20-somethings and 30-somethings talk tech. It’s a sea of sweaters and corduroys and Keen's shoes — save for one tall character in a crisp blue shirt and leather jacket.

"So this is where the rubber meets the road in innovation," Metcalfe said, surveying the sea of dark turtlenecks.

Metcalfe is 64-years-old, and he stands out with his white hair.

The same quality that makes Metcalfe talk as big as Texas and make brash moves is also the same reason he’ll be hard to replace locally.

"People thrashing around figuring out a way to navigate the market. And you’d think we’d be doing this during the day over a conference table, but instead we’re doing it over chips."

At events like these, fledgling entrepreneurs get to bump shoulders with the guy who has a mathematical law named after him, Metcalfe's Law. With the guy who invented the way your office computer is networked. With the guy who founded the company 3COM. Now a venture capitalist at Polaris, Metcalfe does not really have to be here. But it’s clear he loves being part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

"So I’ve been drinking beer that was refrigerated by the milk chiller," Metcalfe said. "And I’m just a fly on the wall, giving free advice, which is worth every penny you could pay for it."

But now Metcalfe is going to start giving that free advice in Austin. This semester, he’ll teach innovation at the University of Texas.

"Do I think Boston’s a horrible place? No. Do I hate winter? No," he said. "Is the venture capital community falling apart, so I’m abandoning a sinking ship? No."

Other people have insinuated yes. They’ve also said things about Texas. One professor at the party told Metcalfe that MIT works with developing nations, too.

"I’ve received some snide remarks about the political environment in Texas, but I reject them," Metcalfe said. "Texas is, by the way, doing much better economically than either California or Massachusetts. There’s something going on that’s right there."

The same quality that makes Metcalfe talk as big as Texas and make brash moves is also the same reason he’ll be hard to replace locally.

Scott Kirsner covers innovation for the Boston Globe. He said the way Metcalfe holds court and greases the wheels of innovation will be missed.

"There is a little bit of Yankee reticence among a lot of the super-wealthy technology entrepreneurs in town," Kirsner said. "They’re not quite as open and public and accessible as some of Metcalfe’s gatherings have been, and so I hope someone will kind of step into that role."

Metcalfe’s departure strikes a little bit of nerve here. The Hub tech economy already has a bit of an inferiority complex toward Silicon Valley. Now Austin is a growing competitor. But Metcalfe doesn't see it that way.

"I lived in Silicon Valley for 22 years and came here and was expected to become a partisan of the Boston area against Silicon Valley, which I found very hard to do," Metcalfe said. "So the 'going-to-Austin,' I don’t think of it as abandoning Boston, because I’m sort of looking out for the health of our companies, more than where they are."

And that philosophy means Metcalfe won’t be gone for good. He’s staying on the boards of local companies. He’ll be back now and then to do business. He may even do some scouting for his Waltham venture capital firm, discovering Texas technologies and companies to invest in.

More:

This program aired on January 11, 2011.

Curt Nickisch Twitter Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.

More…

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news