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.)
The Third Apple
1976: Co-founder of Apple Computer
Now: Semi-retired engineering consultant
Ron Wayne started out by designing slot machines in Vegas, but his unwillingness to gamble may have ended up costing him billions. Wayne is the oft-forgotten third founder of Apple Computer, who hooked up with Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs when he and Jobs worked for Atari in the mid-1970s. Older by more than a decade, Wayne was brought in to act as a tie-breaker when the two Steves disagreed.
But as the three-man partnership slid further into debt, Wayne began to get cold feet. He had already started and lost his own engineering firm--Siand Engineering, a Las Vegas-based maker of gaming machine technology--and didn't have the stomach for another roller coaster ride. In April 1976, Wayne asked the Steves to buy out his 10 percent share in Apple for $800. Afterward, Wayne worked for game companies and defense contractors, traded coins and stamps, and turned down several offers to return to Apple.
Now retired, the 73-year-old Wayne does consulting work, most recently building industrial models for cross-oceanic cabling equipment. In a phone interview, Wayne said he's one of a vanishing breed of engineers who did everything, from initial problem solving to drafting, model building, and final assembly.
"I want to be remembered as an anachronism, someone who did the whole thing from beginning to end instead of just one part of it," he says. But he'll likely be remembered for his short stint at Apple-- one of the few projects Wayne started but never finished.
1999: Mascot for Pets.com
Now: Pitch puppet
Some victims of the dot-com bust went to the dogs, but not Pets.com's famous sock puppet. After his masters imploded in the dot-com debacle, "Socks" was acquired by Hakan & Associates and 1-800 BarNone, a company that helps people with bad credit buy cars, for $125,000. Since then he's starred in commercials for Bar None and been hired to endorse Hasbro toys and Rawhide Chews.
"We feel that Socks' story is something that many Americans can relate to," says BarNone President Grant Whitmore. "Our motto is that 'Everyone deserves a second chance.' Using Socks supports that notion."
Speaking through a spokeshuman, Socks says he is happy with the new gig. "Do I miss seeing myself as a giant balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade? The crazy nights in Las Vegas with that Taco Bell Chihuahua? Yeah, sometimes," says Socks wistfully.
According to the company, Socks currently lives in the top drawer of a very nice dresser in suburban Washington, DC. When not working, he enjoys lip-syncing and knitting.
1981: Inventor of the Hayes Smartmodem
Now: Advisor to startups
In the BB era (before broadband), if you wanted to connect to the Net, you used a Hayes modem or something just like it. The Hayes Smartmodem transformed the PC from a computing machine into a communications device, helping to create a multibillion dollar industry for Internet access. (It's also number 7 on PC World's 50 Best Tech Products of All Time.)
But like a lot of PC pioneers, Dennis Hayes caught more than his share of arrows. Competition from cheap modem clones ultimately doomed his firm, Hayes Microcomputer Products, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1994 and closed its doors for good in 1998. Hayes followed up by opening a popular nightclub in Atlanta called the Whiskey Rock Saloon. It burned down a year later. Along the way, Hayes developed macular degeneration and became legally blind.
Hayes became an advocate for Internet accessibility for the disabled. He helped create and still chairs the US Internet Industry Association (USIIA), which lobbies Congress on high-tech legislation. His most recent victory: an extension of the moratorium on Internet taxes. Now based in New York, Hayes advises high-tech startups and is launching an investment management firm.
The biggest difference from the old days, he says, is that his life now is much less predictable. "When I owned Hayes I knew where I would be working and what I would be working on," he says. "Now I never know when the phone will ring and I will be working on something totally different. I've come to appreciate how my actor and musician friends feel when they are looking for the next gig."
1999: CEO of Pets.com
Now: Strategic consultant
From flying toasters to sock puppets, Julie Wainwright has touched her share of high-tech history. The itinerant chief executive has run some of the seminal startups in technology, starting with Berkeley Systems, which morphed from a maker of wacky screen savers to the force behind popular games like "You Don't Know Jack." From there Wainwright moved to Reel.com, the movie database that morphed into a brick-and-mortar video rental operation before being purchased in 1998 by Hollywood Entertainment for $100 million.
But Wainwright is probably best known for her role at Pets.com, the last big IPO to launch before the dot-bomb implosion (and number 7 on our list of The 25 Worst Web Sites). Wainwright signed on in March 1999. By November 2000, Pets.com had morphed into...well, nothing. The shuttered site ultimately sold its URL to rival Petsmart.com in June 2001.
"I am probably best known as the CEO of Pets.com, the leading pet supply company with its famous sock puppet," she writes in her profile on networking site LinkedIn. "That was the ride of a life time. The Internet bubble burst and I was in position of either running the company to bankruptcy or shutting it down to return money to shareholders. I chose the latter. [It was a] tough decision made with the support of world-class team and board."
Since the Pets.com debacle, Wainwright has filled the top job at an Internet consulting agency, venture capital firm, and photo editing software maker. Now Wainwright is seeking her next big high-tech adventure--preferably one that doesn't involve sock puppets.
2003: The future of consumer robotics
Now: Teacher's helper
At one time he seemed destined for stardom. QRIO (pronounced "curio," short for "Quest for Curiosity") could do it all: run, jump, throw a ball, recognize voices and faces, and dance like a robotic, less scary Michael Jackson. True, at 23 inches he was a tad short, yet Sony thought enough of QRIO to name him its corporate ambassador, "an expression of the Sony Group's dreams, entertainment and technology."Time Magazine named him one of the Coolest Inventions of 2003.
Then QRIO's luster began to dull. Though he steadily added functionality--like fingers with "pinch detection" to keep from crushing the digits of his human fans--QRIO still cost upwards of $65,000. He soon found himself surpassed by lesser but far more affordable robots like Wow Wee's Robosapian. Attempts at a comeback--including a starring role in a Beck music video--failed to ignite the public imagination. In January 2006, Sony pulled the plug, stopping all development.
Like many never-has-beens, QRIO left show business and went into education. Now at the University of California at San Diego, he works in the university's early childhood educational center, interacting with children age 10 to 24 months. Researchers at UCSD's Machine Perception Lab use QRIO to measure how toddlers deal with their cyborg peers. The verdict? They like him, provided he doesn't dance too much.
1993: Co-founder of 7th Level
Now: CEO of The Imagination Station
For a brief period in the early 1990s, it looked like CD-ROMs would herald a new era of interactive entertainment--and no stars shined brighter than those at 7th Level. The company offered an intriguing mix of technology and glitz. CEO George Grayson, cofounder of Micrografx, brought the tech expertise. Executive VP Scott Page, former sax player for Pink Floyd, brought the talent. EVP Bob Ezrin, a record producer for some of the biggest acts in music, had the Hollywood connections.
At first, the collaboration was hugely successful, producing two best-selling titles: Howie Mandel's Tuneland and Monty Python's Complete Waste of Time. The company threw lavish parties at trade shows, featuring entertainment by Tower of Power and the B-52s, with a guest list that included Quincy Jones, actress Nastassja Kinski, and former financier Michael Milken.
But 7th Level's next efforts didn't do quite so well. In March 1997, when the company decided to drop its line of educational titles and focus entirely on games, Grayson left to form his own software firm, The Imagination Station. By the end of that year 7th Level had merged with Pulse Entertainment and left the gaming business entirely. The CD-ROM market eventually collapsed, thanks to both the medium's notorious technical problems and the rise of the Net. Imagination Station, however, continues to provide Internet-based educational materials to elementary schools across the nation.
We don't miss CD-ROMs one bit. But we do miss the parties.
Falls from Grace
1985: Founder of Corel Corp.
Now: CEO of ZIM, a mobile entertainment firm
Though it began life as Cowpland Research Labs, this small Ottawa-based firm was known simply as Corel in 1989 when it released Draw, one of the first Windows-based graphics programs. Known as much for his flamboyant lifestyle and fondness for sports cars as for his management prowess, Cowpland proceeded to take Corel on one of the wildest rides in the PC business.
Cowpland wasn't content with being the biggest fish in the Windows graphics pond, so in 1996 Corel acquired the WordPerfect Office Suite from Novell. Cowpland vowed to capture half of Microsoft Office's market share, but never really came close. That same year, Corel announced plans to build both its own handheld PC and a so-named Network Computer. (Corel sold off its moribund hardware unit in January 1999.) In November 1999, Corel released a desktop Linux program designed to compete head-to-head with Windows. Needless to say, that didn't fly. Ventures into Java software development and videoconferencing also didn't pay off.
Around that time Cowpland was accused of insider trading for selling $20 million worth of Corel shares weeks ahead of an earnings warning that caused its stock price to plummet. Under pressure from stockholders, Cowpland resigned as CEO in August 2000. Two months later Corel made peace with Microsoft, receiving a cash infusion of $135 million.
In February 2001, Cowpland acquired Zim Technologies, an Ottawa-based text messaging firm, and installed himself as president and CEO. In December 2003, he settled the insider trading case by paying a fine of $575,000. With Cowpland at the helm, the tiny Zim has slowly transformed itself into a mobile entertainment network, delivering live TV programming to cell phones. Who knows--he may topple Microsoft yet.
1993: Co-founder and CEO of theGlobe.com
Now: Budding movie mogul
Community Web site theGlobe.com had one of those roller coaster rides that only seem possible in the dot-com biz--or the movies. Started by Paternot and partner Todd Krizelman while still undergrads at Cornell, theGlobe was the Facebook of its time, combining live chat with personal ads, classifieds, and games. The company's IPO in November 1998 shattered records, climbing from $9 to $97 before closing at $63.50--a gain of more than 600 percent. Just 24 years old, Paternot was worth nearly $100 million on paper.
But the success was not destined to last. The dot-com crash hit theGlobe especially hard, making its stock almost worthless. Paternot was forced to resign in January 2000.
"When the bubble burst, I ran as far away from the Net as I could, hid in a cave, and had my existential crisis," he says. When Paternot emerged, he realized he had one abiding passion besides technology: film-making. In 2004 he formed PalmStar Entertainment with Kevin Frakes, aiming to create his own miniature version of Miramax Studios. (In fact, one of PalmStar's upcoming features, "Down and Dirty Pictures," is based in part on the career of Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein.) PalmStar has three other films in the works for 2008.
"Today I am just as busy as I was at theGlobe, but it's a totally different kind of busy," says Paternot. "I'm avoiding major positions of responsibility like CEO. That was too much for me at too young an age. Back then my life was hijacked by the company's stock price. Now I get to participate on a much broader, more creative level."