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Bob Metcalfe accepts professorship at University of Texas, slows down investing pace at Polaris

Posted by Scott Kirsner  November 8, 2010 08:05 AM

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bob_metcalfe.jpgFrom here on out, it's Professor Metcalfe to you.

I heard last month, but couldn't confirm, that Bob Metcalfe of Polaris Venture Partners had taken a teaching gig. What surprised me was that my source told me it wasn't at a school in New England.

Metcalfe, though a native of Brooklyn, came here to earn degrees at MIT and Harvard. After a stint at the famed Xerox PARC research lab, where Metcalfe and David Boggs invented the Ethernet networking standard for linking computers, he founded 3Com Corp., the pioneering networking firm that sold Ethernet gear. But for most of the 1990s and 2000s, Metcalfe has been a resident of Boston and Lincolnville, Maine — first as a publisher and columnist at InfoWorld, a trade publication, then as a co-founder of Maine's annual PopTech Conference, and then as a general partner at Polaris Venture Partners. (Here's the 1998 profile I wrote of Metcalfe for Wired.)

Today, the University of Texas at Austin will announce that Metcalfe has accepted a post as "Professor of Innovation" at UT's engineering school. Metcalfe starts in January. As a result, he'll ramp down the investing he has been doing at Polaris since joining the Waltham firm in 2001.

How'd it happen? Metcalfe says he gets the urge to change careers about every decade, and he had spent the last one as a venture capitalist active in the energy and IT sectors. When he began exploring the possibility of an academic position, he spoke to several schools locally, including Harvard, Boston University, Olin College. But at MIT, Metcalfe — who is a lifetime trustee of the university — says he told Susan Hockfield that he wasn't interested in joining the faculty. "I didn't want to put them through the embarrassing situation of having to reject a trustee," he says. "But the principal reason was that one of my motives is a change of scenery. And I really appreciate being a trustee at MIT, which is a position that has tenure, and I'd have to give that up if I were on the faculty."

Texas, he says, "is already a top 10 engineering school in the U.S., and arguably the largest school in the U.S. It is plunked down in the middle of Austin, which has been a tech center for a very long time. There's a lot to work with there." While the school has had some success in spinning out start-ups, Metcalfe says there is the potential to do even better.

Metcalfe says he will spend the spring semester working on a book, which he is calling "Metcalfe's Law," and will begin teaching next fall. He says he doesn't plan to sell his townhouse in Back Bay, though he did recently sell his 150-acre farm in Maine.

As for the change in Metcalfe's role at Polaris, he says that the most he will be doing is making one new investment a year (and perhaps as few as one new investment for each Polaris fund.) Polaris is in the middle of raising a new $400 million investment fund that will be less than half the size of its last fund. Smaller funds, obviously, don't need as many partners out sprinkling capital. Metcalfe says of his decision to try teaching and down-size his role at Polaris that the smaller fund size was not "a factor, but a correlation."

About his ten years in venture capital, which started as the dot-com era was crumbling, Metcalfe says, "Many people have told me that this last decade was probably the worst ten years in venture capital's history." Of Metcalfe's own portfolio investments, two imploded (GreenFuel Technologies, which bred algae that produced biofuels, and SiCortex, a Maynard start-up that developed energy-efficient supercomputers). Another, Acton-based Mintera Corp., a maker of optical networking gear, raised more than $80 million in venture capital but was sold over the summer for just $12 million (with another $20 million attached as potential milestone payments.) Metcalfe says that while none of his portfolio companies has yet had an IPO or dazzling acquisition, he's hopeful for those that remain, including solar tech developer 1366 Technologies and Ember Corp., a manufacturer of chips for wireless networking.

The University of Texas press release announcing Metcalfe's appointment includes this quote from Rudy Garza, chairman of the board of the UT's alumni association: "Today we can celebrate recruiting a world-class talent in Bob Metcalfe who is a catalyst for innovation and has excelled at the nexus of science, engineering and entrepreneurship. Bob's expertise of bridging science and technology into thriving businesses of the future will speed the success we all will experience as we work hard to spur innovation, build world-class businesses and create wealth and jobs in our great state."

Metcalfe says he believes that innovation can, in fact, be taught: "Innovators are more made than born." Here's an e-mail Metcalfe sent me about beginning his "fifth career" as a professor. He writes:

Innovation makes the world go round. It brings prosperity and freedom. It is a high calling. A current problem is that everybody says so — we are in something of an Innovation Bubble. In changing careers, I aim not to leave but enthusiastically go meta on innovation. The world needs a better understanding of how to encourage innovation. And innovators need to get better at it. Sign me up.

Metcalfe says he expects to spend summers back in Boston, and at an island camp he still owns in Maine. He reckons that about 60 percent of his year will be devoted to teaching, and 40 percent to venture capital and other activities. He says that while he has never been to the massive South By Southwest Festival in Austin, he expects that this year, Polaris will have a presence at the event. "It'll be like a temporary Dogpatch Labs," he explains, adding that Polaris doesn't have any plans to open up a permanent Dogpatch facility in Austin.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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