Bob Metcalfe Wants to Create a Better Silicon Valley in Austin

By LAURA LOREK
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Bob Metcalfe, Professor of Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin, photo by John Davidson

Bob Metcalfe, Professor of Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin, photo by John Davidson

At 24 Diner in downtown Austin, Bob Metcalfe orders a large bowl of fruit with extra strawberries and coffee for breakfast.

Metcalfe, 68, is training to walk his first marathon. And it’s not an ordinary marathon either. He’s doing the Boston Marathon in April. His wife, Robyn, son, Max and daughter, Julia, are all running the race.

Metcalfe’s goal is to finish 26.2 miles in eight hours or under. He is part of the C/I team, which is raising money to help poor kids learn computer programming in Boston.

A few years ago, Metcalfe did his first triathlon – the Rookie Tri in Austin. And in February he finished the Austin Half Marathon. He doesn’t shy away from new challenges. He has summited Mt. Kilimanjaro and hiked through Patagonia.

And every ten years he starts a new career.

For the past four years, Metcalfe has served as the Professor of Innovation, Murchison Fellow of Free Enterprise at the University of Texas at Austin. He has taught an undergraduate course on entrepreneurship with Joshua Baer, founder of Capital Factory and Ben Dyer, Entrepreneur in Residence at UT, called Longhorn Startup. It has spawned dozens of startups.

Metcalfe also runs the Innovation Center in the Cockrell School of Engineering at UT with Louise Epstein and Dyer. They’ve focused on nurturing UT faculty- run startups through the Longhorn StARTup Studio. Each month, Metcalfe and the Austin Chamber of Commerce host “The stARTup Studio,” an informal gathering to bring the faculty run companies in front of investors, entrepreneurs and other community members to talk about their newest products and inventions. The goal of the studio is to teach faculty the art of technology commercialization, Metcalfe said.

Austin is lucky to have Metcalfe, Baer said.

“The students learn a lot from him,” Baer said. He has got a lifetime of experiences, and Metcalfe shares his stories about double dating with Steve Jobs or being the first investor in PowerPoint with students, Baer said.

Metcalfe earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT and a master’s degree in applied mathematics and a PhD in computer science from Harvard. He then worked at the famed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center early in his career. That led to his famous invention of Ethernet, a local area networking technology that lets computers communicate with each other. In 2013, Metcalfe was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame for inventing Ethernet.

Metcalfe also co-founded 3Com and worked as a publisher and columnist at InfoWorld. He worked as a full time venture capitalist for a decade at Polaris Partners, a Boston-based venture capital firm.

So how did Metcalfe end up in Austin and at UT?

“I met a saleswoman for NI,” Metcalfe said.

The saleswoman, he doesn’t remember her name now, attended a speech he gave in Boston and told him her boss, James Truchard, CEO and co-founder of National Instruments, wanted to meet Metcalfe. The two then met for breakfast and Truchard invited Metcalfe to Austin to speak at NI week.

Not long after that meeting, Metcalfe attended the National Venture Capital Association convention in Los Angeles. He sat at an empty table. And Rudy Garza, a venture capitalist and founder of G51 Capital, joined him. Once Garza sat down, Metcalfe told him he was going “Meta on innovation” and he thought he might spend the next 10 years of his life in Austin, Garza recalled.

“I said Bob, as president of the UT Alumni Association, I think I can help make that happen,” Garza told him.

Metcalfe told Garza he would be in Austin in June of 2010 to give a speech during NI week.

When Garza got back to Austin, he met with Greg Fenves, then dean of engineering at UT, to brainstorm how they could get Metcalfe to move to Austin. They arranged a dinner with local movers and shakers in Austin’s technology community to get together at Fenves’ house to meet Metcalfe.

“It was serendipity, timing and dumb luck,” Garza said. “I think Bob really felt a spirit of collaboration in Austin and a real hunger and a real passion about taking the city and the region to the next level. And that’s part of what attracted him.”

In fact, one of Metcalfe’s goals is to make Austin and the surrounding area of which he includes San Antonio, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, into a better Silicon Valley. He doesn’t want to keep Austin weird, a movement he associates with a left wing and anti-corporate faction, he said. Instead, he has adopted the new slogan of “Keep Austin Wired.”

Last year, Metcalfe sold his Boston condo and bought a house in Austin. He’s put down roots here now. He drives a giant black Suburban SUV so his wife can easily transport her bike to various races, he said. His other car is a tiny red smart car.

“I feel like when Bob came to Austin you could just feel that rising tide effect,” Baer said. “The whole tide came up a few feet just from him being here. We’re still in the afterglow from that.”

Metcalfe has been a wonderful catalyst for growth in Austin’s technology community, Garza said. He recognizes opportunities for collaboration between angel investors, venture capitalists, universities, students, incubators and accelerators. He is able, along with some of his friends in the industry, to be the glue that makes everything stick together, Garza said.

“He arrived at the perfect time for the growth of the city as we are becoming more recognized as a technology hub,” Garza said.

Metcalfe shines a light on the innovative spirit of Austin and its powerful entrepreneurial ecosystem and helps to communicate all that is going on here to the world, said Michele Skelding, senior vice president of global technology and innovation at the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

The Austin Chamber of Commerce named Metcalfe its 2014 Volunteer of the Year for Technology & Innovation.

Bob Metcalfe with Mike Maples Jr., managing partner of Floodgate Ventures, photo courtesy of the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Bob Metcalfe with Mike Maples Jr., managing partner of Floodgate Ventures, photo courtesy of the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Metcalfe doesn’t just give advice. He gives his time, Skelding said. In 2014, Metcalfe led a fireside chat with Mike Maples Jr., managing partner of Floodgate, at the Austin Chamber’s 2014 A-List awards ceremony. He also served as an A-list judge, reviewing more than 100 emerging company applications in Austin. And he gave the opening keynote with Skelding at the Innotech Technology conference. He has also led panels and had multiple speaking roles representing Austin nationwide and worldwide, Skelding said.

And it’s not unusual to find Metcalfe at 24 Diner holding one of his “Night Owl” sessions with local entrepreneurs like Henry Yoshida and William Hurley, who just launched a fin-tech startup Honest Dollar.

He also shows up early in the morning and is a fan of Damon Clinkscales’ Austin Open Coffee, a bi-monthly get together of entrepreneurs at Houndstooth Coffee.

“With his variety of experiences, people listen when he talks,” Clinkscales said.

In addition to Open Coffee, it’s not unusual to see Metcalfe at the Capital Factory. He recently attended the “Intro to Startup Scene” session there. He also signed up to be a “baller” at Capital Factory’s SXSW Startup Crawl.

Metcalfe has also planted the seeds of entrepreneurial thinking in hundreds of students through the Longhorn Startup Lab, Dyer said.

“We’ve had a number of teams go on to become companies,” Dyer said.

Burpy, a grocery delivery service, Lynx Labs, 3D camera imaging startup, Clay.io, an online gaming platform and MicroMulsion, which is developing microgels for cell cultures and landed an investment from Billionaire Mark Cuban, are just a few of the companies to launch out of Longhorn Startup Lab.

Since Metcalfe joined UT, there’s been a groundswell of interest in entrepreneurial activities across the campus with organizations like Founders Group and Longhorn Entrepreneurship Agency, Dyer said.

“The real impact of our program is something we can measure in ten or fifteen years when one of our students starts a multi-billion company and puts his or her name on a building,” Dyer said.

Metcalfe and Dyer are contemporaries in the microcomputer revolution that occurred in the late ‘70s. While Metcalfe built 3Com, Dyer hunkered down in Atlanta creating Peachtree Software. Amazingly, the two never met until they both ended up at UT.

“Bob is always teaching,” Dyer said. “Every time I’m around him I learn something.”

And he’s a prolific social media poster on Twitter and Facebook, Dyer said.

“Bob can out Tweet me,” Dyer said.

Metcalfe has more than 17,500 followers on Twitter and has posted more than 17,500 Tweets since joining in 2009.

Metcalfe is also always learning, Dyer said. In 2013, he completed a Massive Open Online Course, known as MOOC, from MIT: Introduction to Computer Science and Programming in 2013 with his son. He has also done two “Ask Me Anything” sessions on Reddit.

And Metcalfe has a great sense of humor.

“Every time I go to a football game with him he reminds me has four years left of eligibility for a tight end position,” Dyer said.

Metcalfe is a huge fan of Longhorn sports and often attends football and basketball games. He also tweets about the women’s volleyball team and other sports to show his support.

“He does have a great gift of nonstop curiosity about things,” Dyer said. “He’s got great energy. He also has a willingness to show up and be counted. And he’s actually engaged in everything he attends. He gets mentality focused on it and participates.”

Metcalfe is so accessible and he’s happy to talk to lots of different people, Baer said.

“The biggest impact he has made is just inspiring people,” Baer said. “He listens to students, believes in them and encourages them. That makes a big difference in affecting thousands of students at the University of Texas.

He lives life to the fullest, Baer said.

“I love that he is still going full speed,” he said. “He hasn’t slowed down at all by having a few gray hairs.”

In the summer, Metcalfe hosts several male friends on an Island property he owns off the coast of Maine for “Big Boys Camp.” Metcalfe said he has been criticized for only inviting men, but the U.S. Constitution gives him the right to do that. His wife also has her own “Big Girls Camp.”

Baer has attended the Big Boys camp. Garza and Larry Walker from Austin have also been there for week of camping.

“He’s an organizer and he brings people together,” Baer said. “Personally one of the things I really appreciate about him, he is the person I turn to when I don’t know what to do. He’s not afraid to call bullshit on me. That’s a really valuable thing to have in life. Constructive feedback.”

Comments

  1. i realy enjoyed to read this article , nice article sir ,thanks

  2. I love that Bob is here- huge benefit to Austin and so much to be thankful for. I do think it is a shame he doesn’t appreciate Keep Austin Weird – it is a “local business” movement, not a lefty or anti-corporate movement. Our weird businesses (buying pc’s from a dorm? organic groceries? a bookstore that cares? shoe store that runs? trashy tacos?) may go to the fortune 500 or a small regional force or single store or fail, but the fact that Austin cares about and nurtures these startups is a good thing. And yes, I’m calling stores and restaurants and groceries startups. Is there any better place than Austin for a startup like Sparefoot or Uship to call home? We’re just weird enough for weird business ideas to kill it. Including SXSW, and it’s satellites. It’s the weird that made all this possible.

    Having said all that, man I hope Austin gets more Wired too 🙂
    Thanks Bob, Austin loves you!

  3. Havid read this article I wonder if Mr Metcalfe would take personal interest in my painting dubbed “newSTeve” Jobs artwork which is name pun?

  4. I went through the long horn startup lab at University of Texas. It was an honor learning from Bob, Josh Baer, and Ben Dyer. The success of my Venture, VChain Solutions, is because of the knowledge gained from those guys.

  5. Thanks for the marvelous posting! I actually enjoyed reading it, you
    could be a great author.I will be sure to bookmark your blog and will come back someday.
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  1. […] Bob Metcalfe Wants to Create a Better Silicon Valley in Austin Metcalfe has also planted the seeds of entrepreneurial thinking in hundreds of students through the Longhorn Startup Lab, Dyer said. “We've had a number of teams go on to become companies,” Dyer said. Burpy, a grocery delivery service, Lynx Labs, 3D … Read more on Silicon Hills News […]

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