You do the math. Tom Leighton, a professor at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science, or LCS, holds nearly 10 million shares in Akamai Technologies, a company he co-founded in August 1998. Last October, Akamai went public, with prices at the initial public offering (IPO) starting off at $26 a share; by the end of the day, investors had bid the price up to $145 a share. A month later the stock was selling at $327 a share. No matter how much math anxiety you might have, you get the point-Tom Leighton had become a very rich man.
An academic whose expertise is in parallel algorithms and applied mathematics, Leighton is at first glance an unlikely candidate for an Internet tweeds-to-riches success story. But on closer examination, it makes perfect sense. For years, Leighton has been scrutinizing how complex networks operate-and how they can be optimized. So, five years ago, when Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web) came down the hall at LCS looking for ways to better manage the escalating traffic flow on the Internet, Leighton and his crew of graduate students were an obvious place to drop in.
During the next several years, Leighton and a mix of MIT graduate students and undergrads tried to figure out a better way to manage and distribute content over the Web. In early 1998, the group, which included grad student Daniel Lewin (who along with Leighton and Jonathan Seelig, a student at MIT’s Sloan School, went on to found Akamai), entered the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition. The team was a finalist but didn’t win. Still, the venture capitalists came knocking. And the rest is Internet history. Today the company runs a worldwide network of more than 4,000 servers that distributes Web content for such customers as Yahoo!, CNN and C-SPAN; if a PC user requests, for example, videostreaming from C-SPAN’s Web site, the Akamai system of servers helps to deliver that content, thereby avoiding bottlenecks at C-SPAN’s centralized site. The distributed network makes content delivery over the Web quicker and more reliable.
Despite hitting the IPO jackpot, the soft-spoken MIT professor (currently on a leave of absence from LCS) displays few overt signs of material success. At Akamai’s new headquarters adjacent to the MIT campus, Leighton, the company’s chief scientist, occupies a modest corner office overseeing a maze of cubicles. It’s very much the office of a professor, and Leighton speaks in the patient and precise words of someone used to explaining how things work. TR Senior Editor David Rotman recently went over for a lesson on managing traffic on today’s Internet.