Earlier this year an intriguing coincidence took place in the world of innovation: at almost the same time, Bob Metcalfe and Walter Gilbert decided to become venture capitalists in the Boston area. Both Metcalfe and Gilbert are distinguished innovators who have played many different roles in the process of bringing research to market. Metcalfe invented the Ethernet and founded 3Com to commercialize it. After leaving 3Com, he went on to a career in publishing and punditry. Gilbert has had a brilliant research career in molecular biology, sharing the 1980 Nobel Prize in chemistry for discovering a fundamental method for sequencing DNA. He cofounded one of the very first biotech companies, Biogen, in 1978 and has also had a hand in starting several other biology-based companies, including Myriad Genetics.Now both men are approaching the world of entrepreneurship and innovation from a new angle. Metcalfe has stopped writing his column in InfoWorld and joined Polaris Venture Partners of Waltham, MA. Gilbert has taken a leave of absence from Harvard University to join BioVentures Investors, in Cambridge, MA. In spite of the parallels between their careers, Metcalfe and Gilbert come from different worlds-information technology and biotechnology-and had never met. Technology Review thought it would be interesting to bring them together to talk about the current climate for investment, the most important emerging technologies and why they became venture capitalists now. Editor in chief John Benditt mediated a conversation over dinner in downtown Boston.
TR: How is venture capital activity different from when you started out forming new technology-based companies?
Gilbert: Back in the 1970s, venture capital groups were trying to find a few engineers or a few scientists to put them together with business people and form a company. There’s very little of that now. To do that takes great effort, constant nurturing, and there’s only a small amount of money involved at that stage. So if one runs a very large fund, one can’t afford to put capital into small “seed” efforts like that because that would spread the money into too many companies. Nowadays, when a venture capital group supports the growth of a small company it is generally in the second, third or fourth round, with large investments, as opposed to the very beginning.
TR: How has the broader picture changed since you founded Biogen?
Gilbert: We have shifted from a period in which people doing biology had an ivory-tower view of the world, in which there were no practical applications for what they did, to a view in which everything appears against the background of immediate practical application. Back then, it was like breaking your oath, breaking the code of purity, to think about founding a company. There are thousands of biotechnology companies now; there were none then.
TR: How was it possible for you to go beyond the idea of an “oath of purity” and get involved in founding a company?
Gilbert: That results from having a strong view of the public good and believing that molecular biology could actually make a useful pharmaceutical, so that it was worth spending my time to do that and to show that it could be done. At that time the rest of our community didn’t think it was possible. I learned a lot about the world doing this that I didn’t know before, and in some ways, serving Mammon is cleaner than not serving Mammon, because greed is a very simple motivator, and other motivators in science are much more complex.
Metcalfe: But there is an ideology question floating around here. There are people who believe that making money is evil. They’re wrong. But they believe it.
TR: Right. So how were the two of you able to get beyond those blinkers?
Metcalfe: Well, if you want to see your ideas out in the world, what is the most powerful way of projecting them? Not through a nonprofit organization begging for donations. The best way to convey ideas, I think, is with the people who had the ideas. I don’t think it works well for the academics to sit here and generate the new ideas and then write the papers and then have other people put them into practice. I learned that at the Xerox Corporation in the 1970s.