Five Questions For … Michael Webber, UT Professor and Energy Expert

Xconomy Texas — 

Austin—As a freshman member of the University of Texas Longhorn Band, Michael Webber tried out for drum major.

“They were all, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’” Webber recalls. “I didn’t get it but I was sending a signal: I’m on my way.”

Webber tried out for the position each year and by his senior year, he says he had amassed enough leadership experience to be a legitimate contender. Then, unexpected competition surfaced. “My girlfriend, who’s now my wife, was also the band president,” he says. “She said, ‘I think I may try out for drum major.’ I said, you can’t try out. You’re my girlfriend.”

Well, that sealed it for her, Webber says, “and she beat me. We established the pecking order early in our relationship.”

Julia Cook Webber’s boundary-breaking appointment attracted news stories and other attention. The next year, his fifth at UT, Webber tried out again and won the job. “Here I am, another middle-class white guy,” he says. “It was not news and no one paid attention.”

That chutzpah—and a willingness to be proven wrong—has come in handy in forays into entrepreneurship. Webber founded two companies: energy consultancy IdeaSmiths and Disco, an edtech startup. (He also has four patents, is a published book author, and the creator of a PBS television series called “Energy at the Movies.”)

After UT, Webber attended graduate school at Stanford University—where he received his PhD in mechanical and electrical engineering—but returned to Austin in 2006 to teach and, four years ago, to become deputy director of UT’s Energy Institute. Apart from a handful of years working for private industry, Webber has made a university campus his workplace.

In this week’s “five questions,” Webber speaks about lessons in real estate investing, Leonardo da Vinci, and how he embodies the idiom “like father, like son.” Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: What’s the worst business decision you’ve ever made, and what did you learn from it?

Michael Webber: The time I had a chance to buy real estate in Austin in 1989 for $99 down. They had all these HUD [U.S. Housing of Urban Development] homes, which is just incredible. It was a monthly payment of $400. I was 18 and about to start at UT. A friend was buying houses and said, ‘Hey, you want to buy this house with me?’ At the last minute, I got cold feet. I didn’t buy it. What I learned? Don’t pass up a chance to buy real estate in Austin. He ended up renting [the attached] apartment for $400 a month. He lived for free, while the house doubled and tripled in value. That was a killer. There is value in paying attention to what the business opportunities are and pounce when you can.

X: If you could go back in time and get five minutes with any major historical figure, who would it be, and what would you want to say to them?

MW: I would want to meet Leonardo da Vinci … Next Page »

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