By Kent Larsen
Joe Firmage Seeks Credibility On-line
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA -- The Mormon millionaire whose claim to
have seen an alien got him ejected from the boardroom of his dotcom
company in 1998, has fought his way back online, and is seeking a
much more credible reputation. Joe Firmage, a former LDS Church
member who founded the Internet consultancy USWeb (now called
MarchFirst, Inc.), will launch his new venture, OneCosmos.net this
month after partnering with one of the most credible sources in the
science community, the widow of famed scientist Carl Sagan.
Firmage grew up in a Mormon home, the son of University of Utah law
professor Edwin Firmage. From his youth, Joe Firmage was fascinated
with how things worked, taking apart the family's vacuum cleaner and
reassembling it in addition to the round of science kits and
educational TV shows, such as Carl Sagan's 1970s series "Cosmos." But
when Firmage attended the University of Utah to study physics, he
discovered he also had an entrepreneurial bent. He wrote a software
program to track sales of in his mother's greeting card business, and
soon grew the program into a company that wrote software programs for
the Macintosh. Four years later he sold the company, Serius Inc., to
Novell for $24 million.
As part of the deal, Firmage became a Novell vice-president. While
working there Firmage got the idea for USWeb, and along with
co-worker Toby Cory, quit the company in 1995, raised $17 million in
venture capital, and launched the consultancy. Just two years later,
USWeb went public, making Firmage a multimillionaire.
But his reputation took a beating a year later. In November, 1997,
Firmage says, he was visited by an alien in his bedroom, in what he
says was either a powerful dream or an actual alien encounter. That
event sparked a year-long writing project, finished with the help of
15 friends as a book called "The Truth." More a manifesto on
environmental sustainability than a treatise on aliens, the press
focused on the account of the alien visit Firmage put in the book,
and his credibility was soon gone. Branded a kook, Firmage soon
resigned from USWeb.
But even though his credibility was ruined, Firmage was still quite
wealthy, and decided to put his money where his values were. He gave
millions to environmental causes, and through that giving he met Ann
Druyan, Carl Sagan's widow, who was seeking funding for
science-education projects. They soon were doing projects together,
and reached an agreement to form OneCosmos.net.
But Druyan, like her husband, holds firmly to science ("I cling to
the scientific method," she says. "I am a true skeptic. Joe is
not."), and she was skeptical of Firmage because of "The Truth."
Before she would work with him, she insisted that he sign a contract
that he would not use OneCosmos.net to promote "fringe theories."
OneCosmos.net is actually two different projects. Firmage will run a
San Francisco-based operation that runs the website, a kind of
scientific Yahoo!, a portal for science that not only includes links,
but also images, tools, recent news and the resources to build your
own science website. Meanwhile, Druyan will run a Los Angeles-based
production company that will work on educational projects similar to
Sagan's "Cosmos" series from the 1970s.
So far the venture has raised $25 million, but that money is from two
of Firmage's oldest supporters, companies that were no put off by his
alien visitation claim. In spite of the collaboration with Druyan, he
is still having trouble with credibility, and it may affect how well
the company can raise additional funds. "Joe is a classic visionary
whose thinking is often ahead of everyone else's," says Gary E.
Rieschel of Softbank Ventures, one of the firms that has bankrolled
OneCosmos.net. Still, Firmage--with a lot of help from Druyan--will
have to prove that his latest vision is as far from "The Truth" as he
From Different Planets
Business Week pgEB38 22Jan01 I2
By Arlene Weintraub
Ann Druyan and Joe Firmage form an unlikely venture into cyberspace and beyond