When Thomas J. Perkins ‘53 decided to build the new superyacht he’s launching this summer, he went about it in classic Perkins style. “Tom didn’t call up a famous boat architect and say ‘Design me a luxury yacht,’” a colleague recounts. “He took a clean sheet of paper and designed something that never existed before. Everything with him is original – and hands-on.”
Perkins, a founding partner in the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers (KPCB), has made a career of envisioning new ideas. “His influence as a Silicon Valley pioneer is huge,” says KPCB partner Brook Byers. “He was working at Hewlett-Packard and on his nights and weekends driving to Berkeley and starting a laser company in the mid-’60s. The minicomputer division he convinced HP to start has become legendary. When he formed Kleiner Perkins in 1972, it was one of the few venture capital firms in the world.” An astute investor, Perkins helped ignite the boom in the high-tech and biotech industries – and then pitched in to help manage the companies he funded. “His hands-on activist management style has now been propagated throughout the venture capital world,” says Byers. At KPCB, Perkins urged his colleagues to “take risk, be bold, be audacious,” says Byers. “Tom inspired us to do that.”
Although Perkins is now a partner emeritus at KPCB, he hasn’t stopped being audacious. He recently published a romance novel, and his new 289-foot boat, the Maltese Falcon, is the world’s largest clipper yacht, designed to handle big seas and high winds in open-water and long-distance contests. Perkins jokes that when he moors the boat, he’s going to fly a series of nautical flags spelling out this message: “Rarely does one have the privilege to witness vulgar ostentation on such a grand scale.” But perhaps he’s not joking. Perkins is used to making waves.
To see photos of the Maltese Falcon and its adventures, go to www.technologyreview.com/photos/falcon.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and an MBA at Harvard Business School, Perkins headed for San Francisco in 1957. He began his career at Hewlett-Packard when HP and nearby Lockheed were still young companies nestled among the fruit orchards. The first MBA to join HP, Perkins moved swiftly through leadership positions and ultimately led the company’s successful entry into the minicomputer business.
Perkins did more than launch a remarkable career at Hewlett-Packard; he also found a mentor. “Dave Packard was the ultimate entrepreneur,” he says. “I learned everything I know about venture capital from Dave.” Packard even allowed him to start his own laser company while working full time at HP. The result was University Laboratories (UL), which produced durable, low-cost helium-neon gas lasers based on his patented designs. Perkins guided UL through a merger with Spectra-Physics; then he served on the board as Spectra-Physics became a leading laser company.
With the financial success of his own company, Perkins left HP in 1972 to become a venture capitalist, teaming up with fellow entrepreneur Eugene Kleiner. The first Kleiner Perkins partnership, funded with $8 million, was at the time the largest venture capital company in the world. Kleiner and Perkins approached investing in a new way, taking a direct management role in the companies in their portfolio. At one point, Perkins chaired 14 of the companies KPCB funded, including three traded on the New York Stock Exchange. “Tom was a pioneer as an activist board member, learning the science and technology of a company, being involved intimately in product development and marketing, and even going out with managers on sales calls,” Byers says.
In 34 years, KPCB has made more than 475 investments, generating $90 billion in revenue and creating 275,000 jobs. KPCB funded 167 companies that later went public, including Amazon, AOL, Genentech, Google, and Netscape.
Perkins is especially proud of his work with Genentech, which was founded in 1976 and sparked the development of the biotechnology industry. “The idea for the company started in my office and was cooked up with Bob Swanson ‘69,” Perkins says. “We were both very interested in gene splicing and genetic engineering.” The company’s groundbreaking discoveries in recombinant-DNA technology include the first genetically engineered human insulin and a series of cancer treatments. Perkins, who served as chairman of Genentech’s board for 15 years, says it was the most technically innovative company he has worked with and, since its products save lives, the most personally rewarding.
These days, Perkins spends a lot of time focusing on the technical innovations he’s building into the Falcon. He began boating as a boy on Long Island Sound and bought his first sailboat when he moved to San Francisco. After restoring a classic motor yacht and a 135-foot schooner designed by Nathanael Herreshoff (an MIT alum from the class of 1870), he built two other big boats. In the past five years, he’s logged countless hours overseeing the construction of the Falcon, in which he hopes to beat the old clipper-ship records for sailing such routes as New York to San Francisco.
Built in Turkey and based in Malta, the boat is the first to employ DynaRig technology, initially developed in Germany in the 1960s, to control the sails. The Falcon’s three freestanding 190-foot masts rotate to accommodate the wind angle and are made of carbon fiber to eliminate metal fatigue. (“There’s more carbon in Falcon’s masts than in a stealth bomber,” says Perkins, who had a critical section of a sample mast torque-tested until it broke so he’d know its limits.) The masts hold 25,800 square feet of “canvas” on 15 square sails, which are controlled using 75 electric furling winches mounted aloft. Although the design is complex, the sailing is simple, thanks to a touch-sensitive control panel. Perkins told Yachting magazine he can teach anyone to sail the boat in 30 minutes.
Between trips to the shipyard, Perkins recently took on an entirely different challenge – writing a modern romance novel. His newly published book, Sex and the Single Zillionaire, reflects the many changes in his life since the death of his first wife, Gerd, in 1994.
As a single 70-something, he was invited in 2003 to audition for a TV reality show involving a dozen 20-something women vying to marry a wealthy bachelor. He turned down that offer but suggested to author Danielle Steel – who, after a brief marriage to Perkins in 1998, remains a good friend – that she write a novel based on the idea. Steel dared him to write it himself. Although his protagonist shares some of Perkins’s characteristics, such as having a son who is a computer-networking specialist and a daughter who is an artist, the book is fiction. “I wrote this book to have some fun,” Perkins says. “I wanted to see if I could do it and then see if I could sell it.” So he recently added a book tour to his pursuits as a KPCB partner emeritus and a competitive yachtsman.
Despite this full agenda, Perkins took time in March to address a gathering of the MIT Club of Northern California. He spoke about Silicon Valley history and his new life as a novelist, and reflected on the value of his MIT education. “Go to MIT!” Perkins advised young people at the Spring Spotlight event. “I have used what I learned at MIT every day. MIT taught me to be comfortable and confident with technology, cope with complexity, and build on principles.” In addition to giving advice to students, Perkins has given back to MIT, establishing the Thomas J. (1953) and Gerd Perkins Professorship of Electrical Engineering.
Although the professorship bearing his name is in electrical engineering, Perkins sees an especially bright future for biotech, a field that he helped galvanize through his work with Genentech. “Go into biotechnology,” he said at the Spring Spotlight event. “Biotech has changed our lives, and this is just the beginning.”
Given his track record for recognizing ideas with potential, it’s probably sound advice.
For a review of Perkins’s book, see Class Notes, p. M31.
Photos of the Falcon are at www.technologyreview.com/photos/falcon.