How to net the big bucks

March 31, 2000

More and more members ofcomputer science faculties aretrying their hand at e-commerce. Tim Cornwell reports

A gold rush of sorts is under way in the United States, a country now mesmerised by the notion of getting rich quick, in a vision of instant wealth inspired by the billions being made in computer companies and dot-coms.

Even if some of the gloss has come off high-soaring technology stocks, the internet offers itself as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, says Phil Hendrix, who teaches classes in e-commerce at Emory University. As droves of college graduates set their wagons for the web, professors who stick to their campuses can end up feeling "they are standing on the sidelines and teaching", he says. "The students end up having all the fun."

Not just the fun, of course, but the fortunes. Michael Saylor, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student who teamed up with some fellow graduates to form the multibillion dollar e-business Microstategy Inc, recently offered to throw down $100 million to launch a free internet university.

By no means all US academics, however, are content to act as spectators to what is hailed as a revolution in the making, and not all have had to. At Stanford University, a top research institution close to the gold vein of Silicon Valley, the computer science department is littered with millionaires. At the less prestigious but quite respectable Oregon State University, just north of the state border, about a third of the computer engineering department have quit for high-paying, high-tech jobs. And at least a few professors have struck out on their own, in the risky but lucrative business of internet start-up companies.

Hendrix, formerly on the faculty of the University of Michigan, teaches a course a term as an adjunct professor at Emory's Goizueta School of Business. As a published scholar, he runs a consulting firm offering seminars on e-commerce but is preparing to practise what he preaches. Finance permitting, he plans an early summer launch of his web business, campcorner.com.

Hendrix is a father of two daughters, aged 14 and 12, and one seven-year-old son; they are among about 8 million US children who go away to summer camp each year. For anxious parents who drop off their children at these places, he says, "there's this darkness, a black hole", into which their offspring disappear for several weeks, with only a letter or two to hint at what goes on there. Three years ago, he devised a camp journal, a fill-in-the-blanks book for kids that helps lever open this chamber of secrets; he has sold 70,000 of them.

Campcorner.com, for which Hendrix has raised $150,000 in seed financing, takes the venture to another level, as a "comprehensive e-commerce site for parents who send kids to summer camp". It will include not only a directory of some 10,000 camps in the US, but an online catalogue that allows parents to purchase virtually every item of equipment their little camper needs, and a few that they don't. The business plan includes additional "community features", where camps can post updates, even photographs, to keep parents up to date.

Academics working in lucrative fields in the US - be it law, business or computing - have traditionally earned extra income by consulting. The rule of thumb for full professors is one day a week, plus consulting or research work in the summer vacation. Universities like to see their staff doing outside work to keep active in the professions. But even with these breaks, it has become almost impossible for computing departments to compete with starting salaries in the high-tech world of $100,000 or more, says Terri Fiez, head of Oregon State's electrical and computer engineering department. The brain drain is such that, on average, every computing department in the nation is running two and a half positions vacant, she says. "I think right now we are close to a crisis stage." At Stanford, ten out of 45 professors in the computer science department are on leave, about half of them trying their hand at running dot-coms. But some of those who have made their millions are, apparently, reluctant to leave such prestigious institutions.

Eric Brewer, who recently earned tenure at the University of California at Berkeley, became worth $800 million at the age of 33 when his Inktomi Corporation went public, but continues to teach a graduate course on advanced topics in computer systems.

Running an internet start-up is a very different prospect from consulting, Hendrix says. It can easily become all-consuming, an exercise in squeezing more hours into the day. For a faculty member, there is likely to be more at risk in the new venture - the family and a home - than there is for freshly minted graduates in their mid-20s. On the other hand, Hendrix insists, the attraction is about more than the chance of a multimillion dollar pay-off. "Most of the people are recognising that the probability of its being a huge success is rather low," he says. "The lure is really the opportunity to put your ideas into practice and determine whether or not the market accepts them. The best theory, if it's not executed, remains a theory."

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