Professor Billionaire: The Stanford Academic Who Wrote Google Its First Check

Professor Billionaire: The Stanford Academic Who Wrote Google Its First Check

It’s dusk on a crisp January day at Stanford University, and David Cheriton is in his corner office waiting for his weekly research meeting to begin.
The last slivers of sunlight filter through the windows, illuminating the pages of Superyacht Living & Style a glossy magazine Cheriton is browsing through with only the mildest of interest.

“I once read that a boat is a hole in the water where you pour in a bunch of money,” says Cheriton. He flips through a few more pages and disdainfully tosses it to the floor alongside a pile of keyboards, cables and cords. “I don’t know why they keep sending me these things.”

Burgess, the yacht magazine publisher, knows exactly why: Cheriton is rich. Rich enough to afford the April Fool, 200 feet of steel-hulled elegance listed at $60 million, or New Zealand billionaire Graeme Hart’s Ulysses, priced at $49 million. Or both.

With a net worth of $1.3 billion, Cheriton is likely the wealthiest full-time academic in the world. But yachts are not his thing. The Stanford computer science professor calls himself “spoiled” for taking the occasional windsurfing vacation to Maui. When pressed to recall his latest splurge, the best he can come up with is a 2012 Honda Odyssey (“for the kids”). His act of thinking is often punctuated by the clicks of three different-colored ballpoint pens that he rotates through his fingers.

The one expensive passion he does pursue? “Startup companies,” he says, as he continues to shuffle his pens. Blue. Click. Red. Click. Black. Click.

When Cheriton uses one of those pens to write a check to a startup, he usually ends up more in the black than in the red. Far more in the black. The first two companies he founded were sold to Cisco Systems and Sun Microsystems, respectively, for hundreds of millions. In all he’s spent more than $50 million out of his own pocket, investing in 17 different firms, which range from VMware to his latest, Arista Networks. But the topper was a $100,000 check he wrote in 1998 to a pair of Stanford Ph.D. students named Larry and Sergey. That check alone is now worth more than $1 billion in Google shares. “I feel like I’ve been very fortunate in investing, but I still have the brain of a scrounger in terms of spending money,” he says.