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Stanford Engineering Hero Jim Clark talks about innovation and embracing change

Former Stanford professor founded the pioneering computer graphics company Silicon Graphics, then went on to greater fame as a co-founder of Netscape.

Stanford Engineering Hero Jim Clark talks about innovation and embracing change

July 23, 2013
Jim Clark

Jim Clark is without question one of the most successful innovators and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley history. His first venture, Silicon Graphics, revolutionized the design process for everything from bridges to airplanes to special effects for movies. A decade later, he co-founded Netscape, one of the most successful IPOs of all time. He later played a hand in creating online photo service Shutterfly and Healtheon, one of the earliest bids to tame the healthcare bureaucracy.

Yet when asked to identify how he anticipated the future of computing and networking with such skill, he chalked it up to the old adage that luck favors the prepared mind.

“With Netscape, I had been thinking for years about how networking was evolving,” he said in an interview before his recent induction as a Stanford Engineering Hero. “Somehow I had the insight and instinct and luck to meet people like Marc Andreessen and the people building Mosaic, and the chutzpah to put in the money out of my own pocket to see it come to fruition.”

Becoming a Hero

In being named a Stanford Engineering Hero, Clark joins a select group of just 23 Stanford engineers deemed to have profoundly advanced the course of human, social and economic progress through engineering. Clark was one of seven heroes named in 2012.

As an associate professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University in the early 1980s, he developed the Geometry Engine, an early hardware accelerator for rendering computer images based on geometric models. That technology was the basis for early products by Silicon Graphics, which by the 1990s became the gold standard for creating dazzling special effects in films such as “Jurassic Park,” “Toy Story” and “Terminator 2.” Within 13 years, the company grew to 10,000 employees and more than $4 billion a year in revenues.

“The thing that characterized that company was just a lot of hard work and drive and passion to make sure that the world could use it,” Clark said. “All of the 3D games you can play on your phone or computer are driven by some kind of a graphics engine that’s similar to what I originally did when I was here at Stanford.”

Outsized success

But Silicon Graphics’ enormous success paled in comparison to Clark’s follow-up venture. In 1994, he teamed with Marc Andreessen, the lead developer of the early web browser Mosaic to form Netscape, a company that defined the high-flying early days of the World Wide Web.

“Netscape was ‘happening.’ At the time we formed it, the world was using the Internet primarily as a network connecting a few research labs and universities,” Clark said. Netscape took an unusual path to predominance when the company made the choice to offer the browser for free to consumers and only license the software to companies hoping to use it in a commercial setting. It was a very successful strategy.

“In the first year of business, we had almost no sales force. We were just taking orders,” Clark recalled. Netscape made Clark a billionaire.

A legacy of giving back

Since those days, Clark has worked in other well-known Internet efforts, including MyCFO, Healtheon and Shutterfly. His more considerable contribution, however, has come as a philanthropist. His support made possible the James H. Clark Center at Stanford, a hub for innovation at the intersection of engineering and medicine known as Bio-X. He also actively supports non-profit activities related to healthcare, humanitarian causes, education and the world’s oceans. He funded the Academy Award-winning documentary film, “The Cove,” for instance.

“There are other things in my life that could be attributed to some sort of vision, I suppose, in the academic sense, the Clark Center in particular. It stemmed from a belief that biology was going to be a big future unfolding thing. I think it’s evolved beyond my wildest dreams,” Clark said.

In evaluating his own success, Clark placed an emphasis on the special environment fostered at Stanford Engineering. “Stanford was a springboard to my being able to start a company,” he recalled. “I’ve always felt so much gratitude toward Stanford. I was suddenly around some of the brightest people in the world, and I was their colleague, and I felt really privileged.”

Asked what advice he might give a young engineer just starting his career today, Clark paused as though he’d never been asked the question. After a moment’s deliberation, he said: “As I look back at my history, I realize the most productive times in my life have been when I changed disciplines or I intersected with another discipline. The story there is that I wasn’t afraid of change.”