Although the bold proposal for a $9-billion global communications network is being launched by high-technology giants Craig McCaw and Bill Gates, the network itself is the brainchild of an obscure West Covina venture capitalist and engineer named Edward F. Tuck.
Tuck, 62, a respected financial backer of several start-up telecommunications firms but little known to the general public, said in an interview Tuesday that he has been pondering this kind of a network since 1988, and persuaded McCaw four years ago to get behind the 840-satellite project.
Tuck said that after their first meeting, McCaw "said, 'Let's keep in touch,' so I took him at his word."
McCaw, the cellular telephone titan, joined with Tuck in 1990 to form Teledesic Corp., a Kirkland, Wash.-based company that plans to build the network. Gates, chairman of Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft, came on board later.
In unveiling its project Monday, Teledesic said the network would provide virtually any spot in the world with a broad menu of interactive and portable services for voice, data and video communications, at prices mirroring conventional telephone services.
The project is almost certain to face major obstacles before the services are scheduled to start in 2001, but Tuck's job is now largely complete. He said his role from here on out is a minor one.
The company has hired a president to run its day-to-day affairs, and although one of Tuck's venture capital funds, Kinship Partners II, owns 11% of the project, Teledesic is mostly owned by Gates and McCaw. (McCaw controls McCaw Cellular Communications, which he is selling to AT&T.)
Moreover, Teledesic plans to enlist the help of dozens of other communications firms and other partners to help develop and finance the project, which will rapidly dilute Kinship's stake.
"It's clearly a venture capital deal that got out of hand," Tuck said only half facetiously. "Good grief, that's going to be an immense company. I'll be on their board for a while, and to the extent I'm useful to them, I'm theirs."
It suits Tuck's profile to duck quickly out of the limelight while keeping a piece of the financial action, associates said.
"You'd never know Tuck has done well" in his field, said Douglas Lockie, executive vice president of Endgate Technology, an antenna equipment maker in Sunnyvale, Calif., that Tuck helped start. "He lives an unostentatious lifestyle. No Armani suits. When we go to lunch, it's usually sushi or the deli down the street."
Indeed, Tuck does business from a modestly furnished office--not in the venture capital hotbed of Palo Alto or Newport Beach, but in West Covina, where his office shakes from trucks that hurtle by 100 yards away on the San Bernardino Freeway.
He does fly his own plane--a small, swift Mooney TLS single-engine propeller craft. An "aerial hot rod," he calls it.
With a shock of white hair, a broad nose and brown eyes, Tuck has lived in the same three-bedroom house for 17 years, seldom wears ties to work and avoids publicity, fearing that it would make his clients ill at ease.
"His ego doesn't seem to get in the way of anything," said Randy Hoffman, president of another Tuck start-up, Magellan Corp. in San Dimas. "He's not in it for the publicity."
Nonetheless, if Tuck gets the credit for Teledesic's brash concept, he's also in line for the flak.
The venture has already been criticized by some analysts as being too expensive, too complex and too ambitious, if only on political grounds, because approvals will be needed from countries worldwide to make the system work.
Besides, they said, there are several other satellite-based communications networks already on the drawing board, backed by such companies as Motorola, Loral Corp. and TRW.
Tuck is unmoved. "It's something that I think should happen," he said. His network would provide all countries with similar, affordable service, thereby lifting the economic status of poor nations that currently have inferior ground-based communications systems, he said.
Global wireless communications had not yet occurred to Tuck when he was attending college in the early 1950s, for which he paid tuition by working as a country-western disc jockey in Rolla, Mo.
Tuck graduated from the University of Missouri with an electrical engineering degree. He then held various engineering and technical posts at such companies as General Motors Corp. and ITT Corp. before moving into the venture capital business in the mid-1980s.
As a venture capitalist, Tuck uses cash raised from investors to help fledgling firms get started, while retaining major ownership stakes that he hopes will grow in value as the firms prosper. (He said Kinship Partners II has about $20 million invested in a handful of companies, but he declined to release financial details about himself or his projects.)
Tuck also helps manage the firms at first, but he eventually hires a president to take over operations.
"I'm no good at running hierarchies," he said. "I've fired myself successfully several times."
His biggest success to date is Magellan Corp., which expects annual sales this year of $35 million. The firm makes hand-held receivers that, using technology from the Pentagon's Global Positioning System satellite network, enables boaters, hikers, pilots and others to know their exact location.
Magellan got Tuck thinking about the Teledesic network. Tuck said he realized that while a Magellan receiver could guide someone directly to, say, the North Pole, there was now another need: "To be able to call your mom and say, 'Mom, I'm at the North Pole.' "