Silicon Valley bad boy John McAfee is back, and you’re about to start hearing a whole lot more from him. Not just because I’ll be speaking with him at a fireside chat at C2SV on Saturday, September 28, but because he’s creating new ventures right here in the Valley. We recently spoke with him for a phone interview.
Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. Where are you today?
I am in Palo Alto.
Really? Do you get down here often?
I do, sir. I have a business venture going that we can possibly talk about in more detail at our fireside chat [at C2SV Technology Conference].
Is this your venture or are you backing someone else?
No this is definitely a creation of my own and it is going to knock the socks off of people. I am involved in a communications technology business in terms of developing a brand new type of product that the world has not seen yet.
Ok, if you don’t mind, I would like to try to fill in the gaps for Silicon Valley people with a couple of questions. How do you feel about having started, and driven McAfee Associates? Was that something you planned to do or did you sort of stumble into it?
All great endeavors are stumbled into, it is very difficult to plan a large endeavor successfully, to create an idea, work on it and build it into a corporation.
I stumbled onto McAfee when my brother-in-law showed me a newspaper article about a computer virus, one of the first computer viruses actually, I just was rocked by the whole thing, I remember reading the story and being fascinated by the technology and at the same time, my mind was already working on how to solve it. So I sat down and wrote a program and put what I had made on my bulletin board, and the rest is history. After that, it was mostly a matter of trying to keep up with the demands of the marketplace.
That was an amazing success.
When you look at people like Bill Gates and Microsoft, Microsoft wasn’t necessarily the best product out there at the time, but it became successful because it triumphed over the competition. If you look at the history of it, Digital Research had already been approached by IBM, but their pitch consisted of a paper that was very deep and lengthy. IBM didn’t have the time to read it, so they went to Bill and he gave them the pitch they wanted. They signed Microsoft and made it the world leader. The point being that all great things happen, to some degree, through accident and unforeseen events.
After you left you had a tremendous fortune, but in some ways you dropped out of sight. What did you do after that?
I purposely chose the silence, having been at the helm of McAfee and in public eye, with the ups and downs of a press that loathed me and loved me, I just wanted peace and quiet. I purposely dropped out of sight, but I did not drop out of tech altogether, as you know. I started Tribal Voice, which I eventually sold for $17 million, then I had a security venture that I sold. And then Zone Labs, which we sold to Checkpoint for almost $400 million, much of my own soul was in that project.
These were all your own ventures, not something you backed for others?
Yes these were all my own creation.
How do you feel about the venture capital industry today, do you like the model?
Well, it’s hard to disagree with something that has created such profound advances in technology, and yet it does tend to take advantage of people—very brilliant technologists, who know nothing about law and corporate structures. There are venture capitalists who will create a portrayal of friendship and then end up owning everything. From the standpoint of the technologist, they frequently feel raped and I have to agree with that. It’s not all venture capitalists who do this, of course. In the world of the underground, these are people who would be called con artists.
How did you get into biotech? What was the purpose behind QuorumX (a natural antibiotic that McAfee was working on in Belize)?
From the discovery that bacteria are not simple single-cell organisms that have no intelligence, but a colony of organisms that are communicating. If you look at flesh-eating bacteria, for example, they will not attack when they first invade an organism. They wait until they have a critical mass, which depends on a number factors, including the presence of other bacteria, the state of your immune system, and so on, and then they turn pathogenic, and start eating flesh.
If the bacteria were triggered when there was only a few hundred cells, the immune system would wipe them out, but when they have grown to a few trillion cells, the immune system cannot do that. So they have this huge intelligence and I was startled and amazed and intrigued by that.
When I first read that quorum sensing was a technique used by these bacteria, I go, “Whoa!” And I happened to be positioned in the right part of the world to do something with that idea. The only reason I did not was in part because I was around the wrong people and perhaps a lack of drive caused by my advancing age. I might have been able to pull it off if I had gotten a group of Chinese researchers who were willing to go live in the jungle.
Why Belize, what was so important about being there?
It was the perfect place to develop QuorumX. The advantage was, that part of world has an astonishingly high number of plants that use quorum sensing, that could be used to find QuorumX.
We had it working topically, although getting it to work systemically seemed to be an enormous task. It might have paid off maybe in 20 years. That was another thing that made me back off, we had a topical but it would not have been as effective or thrilling as a systemic solution.
Would it have been helpful to have gotten additional backing from venture capitalists?
I would not have done that. It would be like taking my idea to the mafia of the business world.If I am not doing something myself why bother? I don’t work for other people.
On that note, do you have any favorite people In tech today? Who impresses you?
Well, I hate to be arrogant but the world of tech has changed since the days of Steve Jobs. There isn’t really anyone who has the mental acuity to dance with business world and the charisma to pull off massive PR campaign that would be necessary to fight off a giant competitor. Those people don’t exist today.
Let’s talk a little about the NSA and privacy, because we will want to touch on this in the fireside as well. Will there ever be a product that can detect when your pipeline has been opened and communications are being sleuthed?
People are already doing things to create a sense of privacy; it is a human need. Privacy is a universal right, I think, and it has been invaded for a long time. Even with simple keystroke logging software, someone can control every aspect of your computer, they could see everything you are doing in your bedroom if you leave your computer on with lid up. They can take control of your camera and just watch you.
I think there is going to be an industry that provides that privacy veil that allows a semblance of isolation from watchful eyes.
We’re running out of time, and I am sure we will discuss your film during the fireside chat at C2SV. What else would you like to discuss?
Well, did you see the article in TechWeek Europe that just came out? Their readers voted me as the person most likely to run Microsoft. I think I was even 5 percent ahead of Bill Gates.
What did you think of that?
It’s the most absurd thing I have ever heard. That was so weird. I was like 27 percent of the vote, over a field of 20-some people. It’s like the world is a crazy place and getting crazier all the time.
John, thanks for taking the time. As always, it has been a pleasure.
Thank you sir. I will see you at the fireside.