Calit2’s Larry Smarr on the Origins of the Internet, Innovations in IT, and Insights on the Path Ahead (Part I)

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NSF money would only be used in grant requests for networking if they used TCP/IP. Now you can call this a gross intervention of the federal government in the private sector, picking winners and losers. But without it, we would not have the Internet. So this was a great lesson to me, that there are moments when the government needs to call the question, say this is the national policy, and then allow the market to adapt to it.”

Considering all the current concerns about lax cybersecurity and the vulnerability of existing Internet protocols, I asked Smarr if he would do it differently if he had the chance to do it over again.

“That’s a research question,” he replies. “The NSF has a major program, called GENI [for Global Environment for Network Innovations], which is underway and that is to re-invent the Internet for the 21st century… We’ll see what comes out of that effort. “On the other hand,” Smarr adds, “I don’t know if there’s a single engineering construct created by humankind that has grown as many orders of magnitude as the Internet has—and still functions fairly well as an engineering structure.”

I also asked Smarr if he’s been personally involved in any startups.

Smarr says he was on the board of directors at San Diego-based Entropia, a PC grid computing startup that was founded in 1997 and stalled a few years ago—a victim of what he calls “the downdraft of 2000-2001.” The founders included Andrew Chien, a colleague who was Entropia’s chief technology officer, and who is now vice president of Intel Labs in Seattle and director of Future Technologies Research for Intel Corporation.

But in general, Larry Smarr doesn’t do startups.

Larry Smarr3“I guess it’s because of two things,” he says. “One, you have to decide where you can add the most value to the end customer and what role to play. And I feel that I’m a scientist. I’m a researcher. So I think that keeping innovation alive and nourished in the university is the way I can add the most value to society.

“The second thing,” Smarr says, “is I believe that making a successful startup is one of the most difficult human endeavors there is. It’s sort of like becoming the Rolling Stones—starting as a garage band, and it’s got about the same attrition rate, probably 1,000 to one, from business plan to a cash-positive successful startup. So I have nothing but the greatest admiration for the people who set out on that quest.”

Next: Larry Smarr on the path ahead for the Internet.

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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