From Different Planets
The prospect of partnering with a UFO enthusiast to launch an Internet site focused on serious science would be enough to give anyone pause. So it was especially jarring for Ann Druyan--the widow of renowned scientist Carl Sagan--when Web entrepreneur Joe Firmage approached her with such a plan early last year. Firmage, who made millions as the co-founder of consulting giant USWeb (now MarchFirst Inc.), became a legend in Silicon Valley in November, 1998. That's when he posted a bizarre 600-page diatribe on the Web called "The Truth," which attempted, among other things, to prove that aliens have visited earth and the government has covered it up. It was enough to make Sagan spin in his grave. Yet two years later Druyan and Firmage have joined forces to launch OneCosmos Network. The venture, which debuts this month, has two arms. OneCosmos.net, run by Firmage out of San Francisco, is a Web portal offering science-related information. Los Angeles-based Cosmos Studios Inc., which Druyan manages from her hometown of Ithaca, N.Y., will produce educational programs similar to Cosmos, the 1970s show that she co-produced with Sagan. Some of the programs will be broadcast on the site, others will be sold to TV networks. Everything is designed to carry on Sagan's vision of making science engaging to everyone, regardless of age, class, or education. "It's the Discovery Channel plus 50 IQ points," says Firmage, 30, who worshiped Sagan as a child.
Hard sell. But how Druyan, 51, came to trust Firmage to carry out that vision is a remarkable story about the meeting of two wildly different minds. Indeed, anyone who thinks that The X-Files' pairing of skeptical scientist Dana Scully with alien-hunting dreamer Fox Mulder could only happen on TV clearly has not met Druyan and Firmage. He talks freely about a vision that he thinks might have been an alien encounter--the experience that led him to write "The Truth." She thinks Firmage's extraterrestrial theories are hooey. Her opinion is backed by 20 years of working and living with Sagan. "I cling to the scientific method," Druyan says. "I am a true skeptic. Joe is not."
In fact, Druyan was so concerned about Firmage's out-there reputation that she required him to sign a contract stating he would not use OneCosmos to promote fringe theories. That pact may be a key to OneCosmos' survival. Firmage and Druyan have so far raised $25 million to fund OneCosmos, and they are now trying to scrape up more. At a time like this they can't afford to look flaky. The company's revenues are to come from advertising, the licensing of content to TV networks and Web companies, and fees charged to users for e-mail and other premium services. It's a difficult sell in a market that has grown suspicious of Netrepreneurs.
There was nothing extraterrestrial about what brought Druyan and Firmage together. The two met briefly in Ithaca in late 1998, two years after Sagan died, when Firmage sent an e-mail to Druyan, expressing his admiration for Sagan's work. A year later, Firmage was searching for business ideas for his new Internet incubator, Intend Change, which he has since disbanded. Druyan was looking for financial support for science-education projects. Their common interests got them thinking about building something together. Last June, they formed the company. In November, they rereleased all 13 Cosmos episodes on DVD and video.
Next comes OneCosmos.net. It's much like portal Yahoo! Inc. but with a science bent and way more eye candy. OneCosmos.net is divided into nine broad categories, including "Life" and "Technology." Click on the "Life" section, for example, and you're linked to a full-color nature scene. Choose "mammals" and the view zooms in to show a gorilla in the brush. Click on "fish" and you're brought out of the brush and into the nearby ocean, where you're plopped into the middle of a school of fish. Once in a category, you can do a standard text search or choose one of several "modes" like "Play" (games). There are three-dimensional drawings, digital photos, links to the latest science news stories, and tools to design your own Web site.
For Firmage, OneCosmos represents a true calling. Born in Salt Lake City, the fifth of seven children in a close-knit Mormon family, Firmage was fascinated with what makes things work from the time he was a baby. "He used to crawl into the closet and disassemble and reassemble the vacuum cleaner," laughs father Edwin Firmage, a law professor at the University of Utah. His parents encouraged his insatiable curiosity, buying him science kits and plopping him in front of the TV to watch Cosmos.
"Blue sphere." Firmage was well on his way as a science prodigy, skipping two grades and winning a physics scholarship to the University of Utah. Then the entrepreneurial bug bit. In 1987, Firmage's mother, Gloria, asked him to help her figure out how to keep track of sales for her greeting-card business. Firmage couldn't find a software program to do the job, so he designed one himself. That program formed the basis of Serius, a company he started at age 18 with the help of his parents. Serius made software-development tools for the Macintosh. Four years later, they sold it to Novell Inc. for $24 million.
It was at Novell that Firmage conceived the idea of USWeb. "As the Internet began to take off, we asked ourselves, `Where is the Andersen Consulting to help businesses figure out how to use this thing?"' Firmage recalls. He and colleague Toby Corey left Novell in late 1995, raised $17 million in venture capital, and launched USWeb. Two years of 90-hour workweeks, and Firmage and Corey were on their way to an initial public offering.
That's when everybody's vision of who Joe Firmage was--including his own--changed forever. Early one morning in November, 1997, he says, he awoke to find a bearded man hovering over his bed. Firmage confessed to the glowing figure that he was willing to die for the opportunity to travel in space. Then, as Firmage recounted in "The Truth," an "electric blue sphere" traveled from the being's body to his own, causing "a pleasure vastly beyond orgasm."
To this day, Firmage insists he doesn't know if it was a dream or an actual alien encounter. All he can say for certain is that it was a major wakeup call that his life was headed in the wrong direction. For years, he says, he had been bothered by a growing concern that "the pace of global consumption is not sustainable." He believed aliens would soon visit earth to prevent its imminent demise and that he should help that effort rather than hinder it. "Here I was as the CEO of a large company, scaling up commerce. I was playing a powerful role in the destruction of life," he says.
Firmage hoped he could use his clout as a business leader to bring attention to his cause. Over the next year, he wrote "The Truth" with the help of 15 friends. Not everyone thought it was such a great idea. "I put my arms around him and cried," says his father. "I told himif he didn't keep it to himself, it might cost him his leadership role." His strong-willed son went ahead anyway.
Dad was right. Although much of the book was focused on themes such as environmental sustainability, the media latched onto the alien tale and ran with it. Branded as a wacko, Firmage resigned under pressure from USWeb in January, 1999, less than two months after "The Truth" appeared. "Maybe I deserved the reaction. But I can't say I wouldn't do the same thing again," says Firmage.
The very mention of his name still elicits snickers. But those who know him personally say his detractors don't know the real Joe Firmage. "He's the least crazy person I've ever met," says Reuben Steiger of OVEN Digital, a Web-page-design outfit that designed OneCosmos.net. He certainly came down to earth quickly after "The Truth" failed to spark the social revolution he hoped for. He pulled it off the Web and decided to go about his quest in a more measured way. He has quietly embarked on a plan to give away 90% of his wealth--at the height of USWeb's success he was worth more than $60 million--to environmental and political causes. He's a supporter of the State of the World Forum, an international environmental group.
Celestial images. In fact, philanthropy is what brought Druyan and Firmage together. When the two reconnected a year after their first meeting, she told him about a new hospital she was helping to build in the Bronx, which would provide care to poor children and would be adorned with celestial images. Firmage pledged $1 million, and the building is under construction. "I was really astounded," Druyan says. "It was clear that he was someone who puts his money where his values are."
Druyan has strong beliefs, too. Born in Queens, New York, the younger of two children, Druyan was a bit of a rebel. As a teen in the '60s, she stopped attending Temple Israel in Jamaica, N.Y., after the rabbi sermonized that congregants should preserve the neighborhood by refusing to sell their homes to non-Jews. She traveled to Washington to protest segregation and the Vietnam War. "I think she had her own parking space there," jokes brother Les Druyan.
Druyan met her match in Sagan. They were introduced in 1974 at a party. Druyan, then 25 and working on a novel in New York, was immediately drawn to the charismatic Sagan, who was married at the time. She and Sagan became friends, and three years later he invited her to join the team that was developing the time capsule for the two Voyager spacecrafts. Druyan, who chose the music for the project, became so excited upon uncovering an ancient Chinese song that she called Sagan in Tucson, Ariz., where he was giving a talk. It was during that call that Sagan confessed he wanted to divorce his wife and marry her. She was shocked. Their relationship had been platonic. But she said yes immediately. "I jumped up and screamed," recalls Druyan, her eyes lighting up as if the proposal had just happened. "It was like something out of That Girl."
Druyan and Sagan became inseparable. During their 20-year marriage, they spent all day collaborating on books and scripts, then smoothly segued into their home life as parents of Sasha and Sam. They protested nuclear arms proliferation together. During Sagan's two-year battle with cancer, Druyan became his nurse, uprooting the family from Ithaca to be with him while he was treated in Seattle. Throughout their marriage, she rarely lost her temper. "She doesn't get flustered," her brother says. "If she disagrees, she'll calmly explain why you're wrong without making you feel stupid."
It was Druyan's level-headedness that allowed her to connect with Firmage at a time when so many people wanted nothing to do with him. The two spent hours on the phone quietly debating Firmage's extraterrestrial theories, and Druyan even ran a few of his ideas by some scientists. "The discussion was always respectful," Firmage says. "In the end we agreed on 98% of the issues, and we decided to let science answer the rest of the questions."
Right now, OneCosmos has to answer a more down-to-earth question: Will it be able to raise enough money to survive? With the exception of two of his earliest USWeb supporters, Crosspoint Ventures and Softbank Venture Capital, Firmage has yet to garner support in the venture capital community. "His credibility is probably eroded," admits Gary E. Rieschel, executive managing director of Softbank Venture Capital, which has invested $15 million in OneCosmos. For Softbank, USWeb was a slam dunk, returning more than $400 million on a $18 million investment. "Joe is a classic visionary whose thinking is often ahead of everyone else's," Rieschel says. But it will be up to Firmage--with a lot of help from Druyan--to prove that his latest vision is as far from "The Truth" as he can get.