10 Tech Pioneers: Where Are They Now?
One of the rarest things in high tech is finding a major company that's still being run by the people who started it. Once you get past Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and Steve Jobs (part deux), the list gets pretty thin mighty fast.
In some cases, that's because the founders moved on, either voluntarily or otherwise. In others, it's because the company imploded, was acquired, or simply disappeared down the dot-com memory hole.
We tracked down some of the more noteworthy tech people (and a couple of inanimate objects) whose careers have taken interesting or unusual twists: the PC pioneer turned country doctor, the dot-com wunderkind who's now a budding movie mogul, and the would-be billionaire who chose a different path at a crucial moment.
Where are they now? Read on to find out.
1975: Founder of MITS, creator of the Altair 8800
Now: A country doctor
There are few people who can claim to have inspired Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Wozniak, and Steve Jobs, but Ed Roberts is certainly one of them. As president of Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), Roberts oversaw the creation of the Altair 8800, considered by many to be the first personal computer.
The suitcase-size Altair boasted 256 bytes (or one-fourth of 1KB) of programmable memory and sold for around $400 unassembled. When the MITS machine appeared on the cover of Popular Electronics in January 1975, a generation of geeks was transfixed. (By some accounts, a Star Trek episode was the source of the device's moniker, but others say Popular Electronics editors named the gadget after a well-known star.)
Inspired by the Altair, a group of Silicon Valley techies formed the Homebrew Computing Club, which later gave birth to 23 high-tech companies, including Apple Computer. Roberts even hired Gates and Paul Allen to write BASIC programs for the Altair for $10 an hour. (They later went on to form a little company then called Micro-Soft.)
But few high-tech icons have undergone a career shift as abrupt as Roberts'. In 1977, at the age of 35, Roberts sold MITS for $6 million and enrolled in medical school. He's now a doctor in Cochran, Georgia, population 4755.
In an August 2001 interview with the New York Times, Roberts said he's never looked back after leaving the multibillion-dollar industry he helped create. ''I think I'm making a fairly substantial contribution here,'' he said. ''Maybe not to the wider world, but I think what I do now is important.''
1996: Co-founder of Digital Entertainment Network
Now: At large in London
It's hard to find words to describe the career of this one-time dot-com exec, but "sordid" and "depraved" would be a good start.
In 1991 Collins-Rector founded ISP Concentric Networks with Chad Shackley, whom he met on an Internet bulletin board. Collins-Rector was 31 at the time; Shackley was just 16. In 1996, the pair joined with 18-year-old actor Brock Pierce to launch Digital Entertainment Network, an ambitious attempt to create an Internet-based TV network for 14-to-24-year-olds. Despite burning through more than $75 million in venture capital, the only people DEN entertained were its employees, who enjoyed generous salaries and legendary parties.
In October 1999, the trio resigned from DEN after Collins-Rector was sued for allegedly having sex with a minor. The trio fled to Marbella, Spain, where they were arrested two years later for possession of child porn. Meanwhile, Collins-Rector was sued in absentia by former teenage male employees who claimed they had been lured to his mansion, drugged, and sexually abused.
Extradited to the United States in June 2004, Collins-Rector pled guilty to transporting minors across state lines for sex and paid a small fine. According to reports in the November 2007 issue of Radar Magazine, Collins-Rector is in London and may be a silent partner in Internet Gaming Entertainment, a site operated by DEN founder Brock Pierce that sells virtual weaponry to gamers on EverQuest and World of Warcraft. (IGE did not respond to requests for comment.)