Entrepreneur, innovator, philanthropist and newly appointed IET Honorary Fellow Dr Irwin Jacobs talks to Keri Allan about transforming people’s lives.
Electrical engineer Dr Irwin Jacobs is the co-founder of Qualcomm, chair of the board of trustees of the Salk Institute, and past chair of the National Academy of Engineering. This year he has been awarded an IET Honorary Fellowship for his contribution to the development of communications.
Having grown Qualcomm from start-up to Fortune 500 company, philanthropist Dr Jacobs has contributed hundreds of millions of US dollars to education and technology projects and organisations. Member News caught up with him to discuss his career, the importance of innovation, the power of philanthropy and the impact both he and Qualcomm have had on the world.
Member News: What were your earliest forays into technology?
Dr Jacobs: When I was very young, during World War Two, my father was a cigar smoker, so I was able to combine his cigar boxes with wires that came wrapped around milk bottle lids and flashlight batteries and bulbs to build all kinds of connected devices that lit various light bulbs when switches were set, something we now refer to as logic circuits. Later, in grade school, I was able to find materials to build electric motors and other gadgets.
MN: What led you onto the path of entrepreneurialism, innovation and technology?
Jacobs: After receiving an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at Cornell and a doctoral degree at MIT, I was fortunate to be invited to teach at MIT. As a graduate student at MIT, I quickly became excited about the activities in information theory and its potential to impact real world communications. Another faculty member at MIT, Jack Wozencraft, and I developed a course to introduce information theory to seniors with a focus on potential applications. This led to our publication of perhaps the first textbook on digital communications, ‘Principles of Communication Engineering’.
We moved to California in 1966 to help start the engineering program at the new University of California, San Diego. With my background in information theory and the recent text book, I had many requests for consulting from California electronics and aerospace companies and NASA. One day I mentioned to friends who were teaching at UCLA that there were many more consulting requests than I could handle on a day-a-week basis, and they suggested we start a new company to share the consulting. We named the company Linkabit and it began to grow rapidly. In 1971, I took leave from UCSD to organise the company, found it great fun as well as a way to apply the theory I had been teaching, and the next year resigned from academic work to enter business full time.
MN: The 50s and 60s were a very exciting time in science and technology - how far did outside events influence you at the time?
Jacobs: I remember seeing Sputnik orbiting over Cambridge in 1957 while still at MIT and being deeply impressed. I had worked on a digital differential analyzer for my senior project at Cornell, using components from an IBM 650, vacuum tube logic and a magnetic drum memory, and then followed the development of transistors and integrated circuits that supported better and better computers. That caused me to focus on technology and how to apply it to improve our lives.
MN: Can you tell us a little about how Qualcomm came about?
Jacobs: My first company Linkabit grew rapidly, developing and manufacturing several very innovative products. We sold it in 1980 and I remained with the larger company until April 1985, still focused on driving the technology. Then, as often happens following the sale of a company, I decided to leave. Three months of retirement was about all I could enjoy, and, with six others who had worked with me at Linkabit, started Qualcomm in July 1985.
When we founded Qualcomm, we didn’t have any product in mind, nor a business plan! We knew that digital and wireless would be important and that if we really worked at it we would find something interesting to do. Within the first six to eight months we came up with ideas that have pretty much kept us busy ever since.
MN: What would you say were the biggest projects, ideas or solutions to come out of Qualcomm?
Jacobs: Well, clearly Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) for mobile phones continues to have a major impact. We had an early consulting contract with Hughes to review a proposed design for a mobile satellite system. While driving to San Diego from Los Angeles after the second meeting, I realised that perhaps CDMA might offer better performance than time division (TDMA) and frequency division (FDMA) multiple access for mobile communications.
We weren’t able to pursue it much further at that time, because Hughes halted further support realising it would have to wait a long time to obtain a licence from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). We didn’t have the funding to continue on our own, so we completed another commercial product, OmniTRACS, a communication and location system for long and medium haul trucks that used existing satellites designed for much larger terminals. After completing our first sale of that product in October 1988, we used the cash flow to focus on CDMA. In a few months we became very excited about the possibilities and decided to discuss CDMA with various cellular operators and manufacturers.
However, in January 1989, after a year of intensive debate, the industry had voted to adopt TDMA for the transition of cellular telephones from first generation analogue to second generation digital. A few laboratories had looked at CDMA, but given up on it as too difficult or too long to develop. So when we approached the industry in March suggesting CDMA, most operators and manufacturers did not want to consider it. However, we believed CDMA was a better solution than TDMA, one that would support many more subscribers in a given radio frequency band, so we were persistent. We quickly developed a prototype system to demonstrate to an industry group in November 1989 that we had solved problems that had caused others to abandon CDMA.
We then developed a business model using technology licensing to raise the funding to continue our research and development, and in particular to develop the integrated circuits that would allow us to make commercial sized and priced CDMA handsets and base stations. In November 1991, we were able to bring the industry group back to experience commercial size equipment.
So it was both a technology and a business challenge; how to finance development of a whole new technology and also how to get companies around the world interested in this technology when most were pursuing a very different path with TDMA.
MN: What impact do you think both yourself and the company have had on the world?
Jacobs: Between CDMA and the ability to have a large amount of computing capability in a phone, we and the cellular industry are having a major impact worldwide. In developing countries, cell phones are transforming education, literacy, agriculture, medical care, and of course mobile networking is having a political impact.
In developed countries, I think we’ll be seeing fairly major changes in education and the practice of medicine over the next decade, given the great power of mobile devices and the ability to provide access to vast amounts of information 24/7.
With over six billion cellular connections in the world, the ability to add sensors to monitor and report on the environment including possible pathogens will provide very impactful data to improve living conditions.
MN: Where innovation is concerned, do you think it’s important to be creative in your approach to topics, people and ideas?
Jacobs: I think it’s very important to innovate on technology, but also in every aspect of how you run a business. With Linkabit and then Qualcomm, our fundamental strategy was to focus on innovation. Not just to be a little better than existing approaches, but something that was a larger step, something that would make a more significant difference. That’s always been our approach to operating the business, looking for products that are very innovative and can make a significant difference. Even within a company: you can run every aspect of it innovatively. Don’t ask people to only do things the old way, keep encouraging them to find new ways of doing things, be open to that.
For the last 15 or so years, Qualcomm has been on the Fortune magazine list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For. A good part of that is because the employees feel they can make a contribution, a difference, no matter where in the company they’re working, and that it will be recognised.
MN: Of all the things you’ve achieved, what do you personally feel has made the biggest difference?
Jacobs: Building a company, in this case two companies really, from scratch, with Qualcomm now providing good and exciting employment for about 24,000 employees; and then having that company develop and deliver technology that is benefiting society worldwide, literally transforming people’s lives.
I think there’s nothing that brings more satisfaction than starting with an idea, a concept, a faint possibility, and then moving it forward until it has an impact on the world, on society. Those steps: going from idea to practical product, that’s just the greatest.
MN: Is developing the next generation of engineers and technologists something very important to you?
Jacobs: Very much so. We personally at Qualcomm always support education. I would never have had these opportunities unless I had also had a good education, so we’re very supportive of students with scholarships and fellowships and we’re examining how society can do a better job of educating a broad number of people.
MN: Philanthropy is a very powerful gift - is it important to you to feel you’re giving something back?
Jacobs: Absolutely. Once you reach a comfortable financial level, then above and beyond that it’s a question of how to make best use of your resources to have a broader impact. There are so many needs around the world that one can meaningfully support. So my wife and I focus on K-12 [equivalent to UK primary and secondary education] and higher education, social, cultural, and health needs and medical research. Within these, we then find organisations that we think are moving in a good direction, trying to solve problems we think are important, but in particular have good leadership. So again, we’re always looking for people who take innovative steps and then we try to provide support.
MN: What does it feel like to be a 2012 IET Honorary Fellowship recipient?
Jacobs: I was very honoured to receive the notification letter, particularly after viewing the names of other recipients past and present. Receiving the award is quite special and I look forward to participating in the whole ceremony. I’ve not been directly involved with the IET in the past, but greatly admire its range of activities and expertise. I look forward to considerable interaction in the future, now that I will be an Honorary Fellow.
MN: What are your thoughts on the work that institutions such as the IET undertake?
Jacobs: I think it’s very important that we attract more and more people into the STEM areas of science, technology, engineering, and math. When institutions recognise and publicise engineering achievements – such as the IET Honorary Fellowship – it makes others stop and say: “Hey, that sounds cool, that sounds like something I would like to do,” and perhaps then lead students to make choices that allow them to enter the subjects of science, engineering and math, and themselves make a contribution.
Clearly the future of the world economy depends on more innovation. There are opportunities to develop new devices and software to help people, to take new approaches to solving problems. We live in a very exciting time with great progress in science and technology. I think prestigious organisations like the IET that support and publicise innovation and education perform an important service of attracting more and more people to the field.
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