Broadcom co-founder earns Marconi Award for pioneering work

Published in UT San Diego, September 25, 2012

By Barbara Bry and Neil Senturia

We all know what we know, but sometimes you need to break out of your comfort zone. It’s like jumping out of an airplane — just don’t forget to pull the ripcord.

So with parachute at the ready, I recently attended the 2012 Marconi Society Symposium in Irvine. The speakers and participants were top-line brainiacs. The room included the inventors of the Internet (unfortunately, Al Gore could not attend), high-speed cable modems, the algorithm for secure Internet transactions, and the technology for microprocessor chips. The median IQ in the room was probably 185.

Each year, the Marconi Society, founded to honor radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi, recognizes one or more individuals whose scope of work and influence carry on his legacy. This year’s recipient, Henry Samueli, was honored for his pioneering work in developing the cable modem that became the foundation of Broadcom Corp., the Irvine-based company he co-founded in 1991. Past winners include three San Diegans: Qualcomm co-founders Irwin Jacobs and Andrew Viterbi, and now deceased UC San Diego professor Jack Keil Wolf.

Samueli’s story is a tribute to the public education system, the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Southern California and his own brilliance and perseverance. The son of Holocaust survivors, Samueli grew up in Los Angeles, where he attended public schools and worked in his family’s liquor store. He attended UCLA and earned his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D., all in electrical engineering. “Back then, tuition at UCLA was $600 a year,” said Samueli, “and I could live at home to save money.”

After earning his Ph.D. in 1980, Samueli worked on military broadband communications systems at TRW, a large aerospace company, and five years later, he joined the UCLA faculty full time.

In 1991, he and Henry T. Nicholas, III, one of his former TRW colleagues and his first Ph.D. student, started Broadcom in Nicholas’ Redondo Beach garage. Samueli says that his practical industry experience “working on the military electronics systems at TRW made starting a company that much less risky. We just had to figure out how to make the technology cheap enough for mass-market commercial applications.”

For their first customer Scientific-Atlanta, they built an affordable chipset for the world’s first commercial digital cable TV receiver. In 1998, Broadcom went public. Today, Broadcom has a market capitalization of about $20 billion, annual revenues of more than $7 billion and 11,000 employees.

Entrepreneurs need to grapple with the problem of being innovative and original, but not so far in front that you go broke before the market recognizes and pays for your brilliant creation. In other words, what is “the next big thing?”

At the symposium, speakers shared their thoughts on this very topic:

A few of Samueli’s predictions for the year 2027:

• Moore’s Law will slow down. The good news is that you won’t have to upgrade every year. (Other speakers speculated that advances in life science research could provide answers to increasing chip productivity.)

• Mobile communication technology will have 3-D cameras, 20 times the graphics performance, and four times the resolution.

• Holographic projections will allow you to manipulate objects in 3-D space.

• Seamless user interfaces will emerge so instead of that pesky remote control, you’ll be able to use your voice and gestures.

In addition to thinking about the future of his industry, Samueli is also concerned about the future of his community. In 1999, he and his wife, Susan, started the Samueli Foundation that has given away more than $250 million, including large gifts to the engineering schools at UCLA and UC Irvine, and founding the Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library at Chapman University in honor of Henry’s parents.

Rule No. 141: Even if you don’t understand all that is being said, still listen closely. You won’t know what you are learning at the time, but trust the ripcord. Your soft landing later will be a delightful surprise.

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