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Lycos founder seeks new breed of Web pioneers

BOB DAVIS, founder of Lycos

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

BOB DAVIS, founder of Lycos

Before there were Google and Bing, Internet pioneer Bob Davis founded the search engine company Lycos Inc., which became the way millions of people first encountered the World Wide Web. Davis, who grew up in Dorchester, spoke recently with Globe reporter Michael B. Farrell about the rise and fall of Lycos as well as moving from entrepreneur to venture capitalist at Highland Capital Partners in Cambridge and helping Massachusetts grow the next generation of Internet companies.

How did you start Lycos?

The initial concept called searching the Web was developed by a brilliant scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. But he wanted no part of being in a business. A friend of mine, venture capitalist Dan Nova, found him and was wrestling with whether or not he wanted to buy this technology. I said I’d run it. I had the perfect Internet company: no revenue, no customers, no earnings.

What happened? Why didn’t Lycos become Google?

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We sold Lycos around the peak of the [dot-com] bubble. In 2000, we were approached by the [Spanish telecommunications firm] Telefonica, and they wanted to buy the company. We sold it for $5.4 billion.

If you had it to do over again, would you have sold it?

I don’t know. The company certainly lost a lot of focus after it was sold. I would love to have seen the legacy of Lycos still stand tall. But ultimately our job was to create shareholder value. And we created a ton of shareholder value.

What has been Lycos’s influence in the world of Internet search?

What Google built its platform on is something called PageRank, which is a concept that Lycos pioneered. Even more than that, we developed a portal for the Web. The Internet, without search, is a useless card catalog and library.

So, did you take a long holiday after you sold it?

No, I didn’t take any holiday. After I sold it, I stayed the CEO of what became Terra Lycos. I did that for about five months and realized I didn’t enjoy it. When I decided to leave, that afternoon I was on a flight to my first day of work at Highland.

Why did you join a venture capital firm instead of starting a new business?

It’s fun participating in the building of other [companies]. We find great entrepreneurs and great people to build stuff, and then we stand back and say, “Wow, what a great job.’’

VCs like to talk about successes, but tell me about an investment that didn’t work out so well.

The first investment I made at Highland. It was a software company, and we ended up selling it to a company in Europe. We lost a little bit of money. I was coming out of Lycos, but jumped into a category that I didn’t know. So when it faced challenges, I found that I wasn’t able to help.

What about a success?

Quattro Wireless. When we kicked off Quattro about five years ago, the idea to see websites on a mobile phone was a new concept. Quattro came along and offered a way to take all of what companies do on the Web and make that a good experience on a phone, and at the same time showing advertisers how to monetize that. We ended up selling that to Apple Inc. for what was reported to be $275 million.

Is Massachusetts still losing technology talent to Silicon Valley? The ultimate incubator that we have are universities, but we still see far too many people moving West when they graduate. There’s an ecosystem that Silicon Valley has built that doesn’t exist here. Other than EMC, we don’t have a large, multinational technology company in Massachusetts. We have been a fertile area to grow companies for West Coast companies to acquire, but we haven’t been able to develop the companies willing to stay.

Why did Highland move from Lexington to Cambridge?

We moved here for one reason: You want to fish where the fish are, and the entrepreneurs are in Boston and Cambridge.

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