Xconomist of the Week: Stephen Wolfram on Big Ideas & Companies

12/8/11Follow @gthuang

Stephen Wolfram is not one to be summed up in a few pithy quotes. Well, too bad.

Here is his life in a nutshell:

“I grew up in England and went to all sorts of good schools that I thought were completely irrelevant.”

“By the time I was 20 years old, I was a physics faculty member at Caltech, and I was building a big software system that was a forerunner of Mathematica.”

“Along the way, I learned a lot about what not to do in starting a company.”

“For about a decade I was almost a complete recluse, running the company from a distance, and spending every night working on basic science.”

“I don’t really have a boss. I just do what I want to do. The trick is not to have a private company that gets too weird and too pathological.”

That was a sampling of what the distinguished and controversial Wolfram had to say at our Xconomy Forum in Boston last week, called “6×6: Six Cities, Six Big Tech Ideas.” For those who don’t know, he is the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research, the creator of Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha, and the author of A New Kind of Science. He is also a recently minted Xconomist.

Wolfram, 52, set the table for the theme of our event, which involved some of the biggest ideas in technology and business from entrepreneurs and executives around the country. As only he could, the physics and software guru reflected on his 30 years in the tech industry and his contrarian approach to running big projects and building companies.

A few things really stood out to me in his talk. One was the importance of making mistakes early in his career. While at Caltech in the early ‘80s, Wolfram got into a “grisly early-IP-meets-university” battle over his software tools, he said.

“I ended up deciding I had to start a company around the software system I’d built, and of course I was just a physics kid. I didn’t know anything about starting companies,” he said. “I made lots of mistakes, like not running the company myself, hiring a CEO who was twice my age, and so on. The company quickly started doing things that I thought were silly and boring. In the end, after many trials and tribulations, it did in fact survive and finally went public and was gobbled up by bigger fishes.” (You can read more about his first startup, Computer Mathematics, which was venture-backed and later merged with Inference, here.)

Another thing Wolfram figured out early on was that university work was not for him. After spending time at Caltech and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, he started a research center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study complex systems and complexity theory. “My plan A was to get lots of other people to help work” on the implications and applications of his findings, he said. “It was OK, but it was really slow. I got kind of frustrated and needed a plan B,” he said. “My plan B was to build … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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