Fellows Highlight - Paul Baran

Internet Pioneer Proves Silicon Valley Startups Aren't Just for Kids

By Mike Cassidy, San Jose Mercury News Columnist

Original article posted on the San Jose Mercury News website on February 11, 2010.

It's not unusual to hear talk around startups about bringing in adult supervision to give a young company credibility and maybe attract some venture funding.

Paul Baran isn't interested in adult supervision for his startup.

He's 83.

"You can say 83," Baran says, "or you can add the two numbers together and get 11. I have all the fun an 11-year-old would have."

Baran is sitting in the conference room of Plaster Networks, his Menlo Park networking startup. It's a company of about a dozen workers housed in one of the valley's ubiquitous strip-mall-style R&D developments. Next door is GoBackTV, a company working on providing video streaming to televisions. Baran started that company five years ago, back when he was still in his 70s. He says the early stage company's video delivery system is gaining traction with luxury hotels outside the United States.

Serial entrepreneur? You could say that. Baran helped start nine companies, including Packet Technologies (which became Stratcom), Metricom and Com21, all of which reached valuations of more than $1 billion, he says. And clearly he can't stop.

Paul Baran"If you're having fun, why stop?" Baran says, a seemingly constant twinkle in his eye. "I'll have plenty of time after I get fully decrepit."

While nobody keeps official track of these sorts of things, let's just say Baran is a strong contender for the valley's oldest startup founder. How many can you name who were born nearly a half-century before Silicon Valley became Silicon Valley?

In a perfect world, age wouldn't even be an issue. In a perfect world we'd be saying: Eighty-three? So what? What does age have to do with it?

But this isn't a perfect world. This is Silicon Valley, age-obsessed Silicon Valley. This is a place where a key part of the narrative is those kooky college kids — like Jerry Yang and David Filo, like Marc Andreessen, like Sergey Brin and Larry Page, like Mark Zuckerberg — who have an idea, start a company and become fabulously rich.

This is a place where some think only the young are innovative. Remember Sequoia Capital venture capitalist Douglas Leone's recent comment that his firm concentrates on young entrepreneurs because people over 30 aren't innovative? (Yes, he backtracked a bit, but still.) Ridiculous. Right, Paul Baran?
Actually ... "I think it has a lot of merit," Baran tells me. "When you look at major advancements, most of it comes from the young ones, because they don't know what can't be done."

Still, Baran says, blanket statements are dangerous. There are always exceptions. And he certainly doesn't believe innovation has an age limit.

In fact, Baran was over 30 when he came up with the innovation for which he is best known — the idea that earned him a National Medal of Technology and Innovation and gave the rest of us the Internet. It was Baran who, while working at the RAND Corp. in the 1960s, seized on the concept of packet switching, chopping digital information into pieces that can be sent across the Internet and reassembled when they reach their destination.

He's been at it ever since, which he says is simply second nature for an engineer.

Now he's focused on Plaster Networks, which builds adapters and the software to create computer networks that rely on a building's electrical wiring to carry digital signals. The system can replace or complement a home's wireless network, for instance. The company also provides remote monitoring that can pinpoint any networking problems that arise.

No, it's not radical or cutting edge. But Baran thinks his latest, self-funded venture has a chance of doing some good while achieving business success. Will he guarantee success?

Not a chance. Paul Baran knows better. He's been around too long for that kind of talk.