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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Nobel Laureate In A VC Firm

Nobel laureate Arno Penzias talks so fast that listeners can barely keep up. Switching subjects quickly, his technical and scientific mind moving faster than his mouth will speak, ideas spewing forth like a relentless Old Faithful. ",I call him our resident genius," says Chuck Newhall,, co-founder of NEA and general partner in the firm's Baltimore office. "If we're going up on a ski lift, he's explaining to me the theory of relativity and at the same time trying to analyze the mechanical function of the lift. He just lends a whole other level of experience." Penzias, a physicist by training, won the Nobel Prize in physics for work at Bell in radio astronomy in 1978. Penzias moved up the ranks at Bell, eventually becoming the company's chief scientist and heading its research operation.
Not a bad résumé. But he was forced to re-examine what he had accomplished after a visit from Apple Computer Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs. Penzias recalls Jobs telling him that Bell's inventions would never be marketed and change the world in the way they could if they were fostered in a smaller, less conservative company. "He really let me have it," Penzias says. "I found myself being so upset and angry, but I thought to myself, 'If I didn't think there was something right about what he said, I wouldn't get this angry.' "That experience, he says, prompted him to move to California to "see what Silicon Valley was all about."
Still, sources say that such debate and passion in the end is a positive and welcomed on the VC front. Penzias has taken lead roles on several funding deals — more than he ever expected — and has been vocal about everything from marketing to positioning the products. His colleagues say "It'd be dangerous to say Arno's a tech guy," "His background would certainly tell you that, but Arno has opinions on everything, and he's knowledgeable about everything."

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