Bob Metcalfe, the father of Ethernet and founder of 3Com (COMS), says the history of the Internet is a “rich vein to mine” when it comes to building the next generation of energy technology. He should know — he’s been researching network and information technologies for over three decades, delivering gems like Metcalfe’s Law, which calculates the value of the network effect.
When it comes to cleantech — or “enertech” (energy technology), as he prefers to call it — Metcalfe’s a relative newcomer. He’s spent just the past few years helping Polaris Venture Partners place investments in startups like algae biofuel company GreenFuel, where he’s currently interim CEO. Metcalfe expects the company will find a permanent CEO by December; in the meantime he’s helping it raise a Series C round.
But being new to the energy industry means Metcalfe is relying on his network history past to guide him. He’s even coined a Metcalfe-style term for the next generation of energy distribution that will meet the world’s needs for clean and cheap energy: Welcome to Metcalfe’s Enernet (energy network).
Q) Is there a network aspect or network affect for green technology?
A) Yes, even more strongly than you might have guessed. There is a lot to be learned from building the Internet over the last four decades, and we should make that analogy and apply those lessons. The “Enernet” is what we are all building to meet the world’s need for cheap and clean energy. It will not happen overnight, and it will be hard to predict how the various technology will play out over time. For example, the Internet was built to network mainframe computers and now it connects mostly cell phones and PCs. That was a big surprise.
Also look at the lessons of standardized interfaces. For the Internet, it took some years to figure that out. Some of them didn’t emerge, like the web, until 1989. For the Enernet we can look to the methods of standardization and how we choose to organize this thing. Fuels, biofuels themselves, are a standard.
Q) You created Metcalfe’s Law for telecommunications; do you have a similar style of broad, sweeping laws or ideas for the greentech industry?
A) You could imagine applying Metcalfe’s Law literally to energy generation networks. When you connect distributed power sources, there may be some network effect. Or there may be similar metrics that could be elevated to laws in the energy space. Like for wind power, or geothermal or solar transmission.
Q) You’re famous for saying at some point the Internet would collapse and that you’d promise to eat your words if proven wrong. You then gave a speech in which you blended a printed copy of that article and drank it. Do you want to make any such predictions for the greentech world?
A) I’m so glad you brought up the Internet collapse; I wrote a book on the subject which you can get on Amazon. Unfortunately, I’m not nearly as expert in energy as the Internet space, so it will be some more time before I can make wild predictions like that.
It’s interesting, people may resent the Internet people wandering into the energy space and constantly saying that we don’t know anything. I’d say to that that you guys have had a long time to fix it, so now get out of the way. Energy is a big important problem and the world needs cheap and clean technology.
There will be many surprises ahead for energy technology. I remember when the Internet was just like this: there were telco and netheads and bad standards and a series of bubbles. I’m looking forward to a number of enertech bubbles — bubbles are the accelerator of innovation. We have a bubble in photovoltaics right now. Those bubbles are generally a good thing, unless you’re a loser. Biofuels are also a bubble right now. I could get anybody to be interested in GreenFuel, given that biofuels are so bubbly right now, so we have to be a little careful of that.
Q) What other areas of energy are you looking at for Polaris?
A) We are on the trail of a photovoltaics company; we’d like to invest in that, though we’ve had a hard time finding an investment in one. We are looking into the fundamental conversion aspect, the very silicon, and to join the effort to reach grid parity.
Now that we’ve done GreenFuel, we probably won’t make another biofuels investment. We’d love to do an investment in nuclear, but we haven’t found one yet. We’d love to do something in wind, but that one is frothy too, and we have to be careful to not make stupid investments. I’m also interested in geothermal — engineered geothermal, specifically. Also we’re looking at other IT investments. We wish we had done EnerNOC (ENOC).