Ethernet Inventor and Professor of Innovation Robert Metcalfe Looks at Energy Issues in Unique Session with Students

Robert M. Metcalfe, Internet pioneer and newly appointed professor of innovation at The University of Texas at Austin Cockrell School of Engineering, spoke to a standing-room only audience Jan. 20 on how the lessons learned over the Internet's roughly 65-year history can be used to help understand and solve the energy crisis.

Metcalfe video
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Watch part one of Metcalfe's Jan. 20 talk. Continue watching part two on the Cockrell School's YouTube channel.

"The internet took decades and if it's any guide energy is going to take decades [to solve] and that's a different mindset," Metcalfe said. "One of the consequences of looking at energy as a multi decade thing is that we have to be careful of hardening of categories, that is some of our early dichotomies, tracheotomies, taxonomies and phraseologies turn out to be wrong and when they’re wrong they slow us down and send us off in the wrong direction."

Metcalfe's presentation to mostly students and faculty drew from his years of experience helping to develop and improve the internet. In the 1970s, he worked in the Computer Science Laboratory of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, where he invented today's local-area networking standard, Ethernet, for which he received the National Medal of Technology. For the past 10 years he worked as a venture capitalist, serving as a general partner of Polaris Venture Partners, where he continues to advise the Massachusetts-based firm as a general partner.

Drawing on some of the parallels between early mistakes that plagued the internet and now energy, Metcalfe compared AT&T's sole control prior to 1968 over what plugged into the telephone network to Congress's decision to heavily subsidize corn ethanol in an attempt to manipulate fuel markets without disrupting feed and food markets.

"This is an early example of a categorical mistake [in energy]. Feed and food and fuel cannot be separately managed," he said.

Bob Metcalfe stands with Cockrell School of Engineering Dean Gregory L. Fenves and Energy Institute Director Raymond Orbach.

Bob Metcalfe stands with Dean Gregory L. Fenves and Energy
Institute Director Raymond Orbach.

Metcalfe said that energy, like the internet, is a "movement" with its own slogans, dogma and even color, all of which can complicate its advancement. For starters, Metcalfe proposed replacing the color usually associated with the energy movement — green — with blue, because of the sometimes counterproductive beliefs that he said typically go with the green movement but against most realistic energy solutions, such as being anti-technology, anti-capitalism and anti-nuclear.

However, he said, energy and the environment are not the same thing.

"I'd like to point out that if we solve global warming, we'd still have an energy problem," he said.

For many engineering students and faculty, Metcalfe's presentation on Thursday was their first chance to hear from him since he joined the Cockrell School in late 2010.

Among the questions asked by students during his presentation was, "Why Austin?," to which Metcalfe jokingly replied that it is warmer than Boston, there's no income tax and his decision was solidified after watching Don Henley play at Austin City Limits in October 2010.

"In all seriousness, after 10 years as a venture capitalist my attention span was violated, I decided to find a new career and I settled on being a professor… and I wanted to be a professor of innovation," Metcalfe said.

He said he was attracted to The University of Texas at Austin's engineering school because it is among the top 10 in the nation.

During the presentation, Metcalfe used the program Avaya web.alive to enable remote attendees to participate in the lecture in real-time. Metcalfe will also host office hours for students on an ongoing basis using the Avaya web.alive environment, making it easy for students to interact with him from a PC or laptop wherever they are located.

Metcalfe's presentation was the first in a speaker series hosted by the Cockrell School that brings internationally recognized technology leaders to campus to interact with students.

Bob Metcalfe speaks to a standing-room only audience on Jan. 20.

Metcalfe speaks to a standing-room only audience on Jan. 20.

View Metcalfe's Talk

Download a printer-friendly version of Metcalfe's presentation (PDF) or watch a webcast.

In the News

Read the latest news coverage on Bob Metcalfe joining the faculty at the Cockrell School of Engineering.

KXAN: Ethernet inventor comes to UT. Read or watch the full story online.

WBUR (Boston's NPR station): Boston loses influential tech pioneer to Austin. Read or listen to the full story online.

The Wall Street Journal: Soon-to-be Professor Bob Metcalfe sees 'Innovation Bubble'. Read the full Q&A online.

Boston Globe: Bob Metcalfe accepts professorship at University of Texas, slows down investing pace at Polaris. Read the full story online.

Austin American Statesman: UT hires Ethernet co-creator to teach at engineering school. Read the full story online.

Austin Business Journal: Ethernet inventor joins University of Texas engineering faculty. Read the full story online.

Austin Business Journal Blog: UT hire takes entrepreneurism center stage. Read the full blog post online.

Boston Business Journal: Q&A with Bob Metcalfe on his career move. Read the full story online.

The Wall Street Journal Blog: The Eyes of Texas are now upon Bob Metcalfe. Read the excerpt online.

Mass High Tech Blog: Metcalfe: A Texas sized presence. Read the full blog post online.

Xconomy: Boston: Inventor and VC Bob Metcalfe Joins Faculty at University of Texas, Talks About Spurring Innovation by Teaching It. Read the full story online.