Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about the history of the Internet and Dot-com bubble startups. Very much like a music student would learn about the life and achievements of his favorite musicians and study what made them great, learning from past successes and failures of entrepreneurs feeds my startup analyst side.

These days I’m reading The Everyting Store, a great book by Brad Stone about the history of Interestingly, the company founded by Jeff Bezos launched at the same time Netscape went public:

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On August 9, 1995, Netscape Communications, the corporate descendant of the pioneering Mosaic Web browser, went public. On the first day, its stock jumped from an initial price of $28 per share to $75, and the eyes of the world opened to the gathering phenomenon that was the World Wide Web.
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Today I did some research about Mosaic. Some googling there, some wikipedia here. And later tweeted this:

Twitter is an amazing tool to connect people with shared interests. But such tool would be useless if there was nobody to connect with. Thankfully we’re rapidly reaching the point where most incumbents are on the platform. And more importantly, some of them engage with their audience, like Marc Andreeseen has been doing since the beginning of the year.

To my surprise, he quickly replied to my tweet giving some very insightful and not widely known facts about Mosaic’s (and hence the Internet’s) history. I encourage you to read the whole conversation in Twitter’s site on your browser:

Some key insights:

  • Mosaic started with Marc and Eric Bina. They expanded to half a dozen guys and all but one went to work on Netscape later.
  • Mosaic was a research project funded by the National Science Foundation.
  • They were denied more funds from the NSF, which made them leave to found Netscape. Attached in one of the tweets is the denied grant proposal.
  • University of Illinois later licensed Mosaic to a company called Spyglass, which served as codebase for the first version of Internet Explorer, through an agreement with Microsoft. Update: Apparently, Spyglass did license Mosaic but never used any of the code, instead rewriting everything from scratch.
  • Since Netscape didn’t have rights to Mosaic, they rewrote the entire codebase from scratch for the first version of their Netscape Navigator browser.
  • University of Illinois tried to sue Netscape and get them out of business. Apparently they settled up and the university received a cash compensation. Had they not gone into a battle with Netscape, they would probably have received considerable philanthropic donations throughout the years.

Makes you think, most important events in history are just a delicate chain of randomly interconnected acts. Had they received funds to further develop the Mosaic project, Internet as we know it today probably wouldn’t exist.

Universities should focus on providing their students with the best resources to develop their research, and encourage them to take the entrepreneurial step once the moment is right. By having very strict patent and rights policies, universities alienate researchers who loose interest in the projects they once defended.

This is specially important in US universities which greatly benefit from donations from past students who become wealthy, thanks to work sometimes derived from a research they started while studying, or somewhat connected to their years in college.

On a side note, being able to directly reach the protagonist of an event, the inventor of a technology, the writer of a book or the creator of an idea is the killer feature of online education. Instead of learning from unmotivated college professors, outdated books and third hand resources, you can go directly to the source of the piece of knowledge you want to know. And when you really want to deeply understand something I think that is the only way to go.

And last but not least, remember: