Conventional wisdom descries a black hole between the infinite uncertainty of modern theoretical physics and the can-do spirit of entrepreneurship and engineering. One more reason to ignore conventional wisdom, says Carver Mead, who became a technology legend by working both sides of what often seems an uncrossable divide. A Caltech stalwart – he is the emeritus Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Engineering and Applied Science – Mead is one of the seminal figures in the story of Silicon Valley, with a résumé stretching back to integrated-circuit pioneer Fairchild Semiconductor and more than 20 startups to his credit.
Mead’s early work in “electron tunneling” provided insights crucial to the development of solid-state electronics. His calculation of the theoretical potential for shrinking transistors gave Intel founder Moore the basis for his eponymous law, which predicts the steadily increasing power of microchips. And in the early 1980s, Mead and Caltech colleague Richard Feynman, the late Nobel laureate physicist, took circuitry into a new dimension by exploring “neuromorphic” electronics modeled on living organisms. Along the way Mead has stacked up prizes, including the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for invention and innovation and the National Medal of Technology in 2003. But his proudest achievement is a string of companies that includes touch pad maker Synaptics and the revolutionary image-sensor and camera startup Foveon, both outgrowths of his work in neuromorphic computing.
Spencer Reiss talked with Mead, who turned 70 this year, at his house among the redwoods in Woodside, CA.
Technology Review: You’re famous for saying, “Listen to the technology.”
Carver MEAD: To understand reality, you have to understand how things work. If you do that, you can start to do engineering with it, build things. And if you can’t, whatever you’re doing probably isn’t good science. To me, engineering and science aren’t separate endeavors. It’s like, “Are you a husband or a father?”
TR: How do you decide what to pursue?
MEAD: Are you kidding? Research is a matter of love. It’s not a left-brain thing. Once you figure out something, then you construct an elaborate rationale – the talks you eventually give that make it all sound so simple. Until then, I get angry when people ask me what I’m working on, because I have no way yet to express it.
TR: Is that what venture capitalists are for – to be cold-blooded about what to put resources into?
MEAD: All my favorite VC types – I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but actually I do like some of those guys – say the same thing: they go with their gut. Does the technology have enough potential applications to score at least one? Spreadsheets won’t answer that.
TR: What about looking at the marketplace?
MEAD: Sure, you can analyze the marketplace, talk to customers, do all the things they teach you in business school. The problem with “demand pull” is that by the time you have a real product, the market will have moved on. You’re doomed to playing catch-up. I prefer “technology push” – find an interesting new technology and try to come up with uses for it. “A solution looking for a problem” is supposed to be a terrible epithet, but in my experience it works.
TR: For example?
MEAD: Impinj, a company started by a former student of mine at Caltech, Chris Diorio. I’m on the board. Starting out with something completely unrelated – neurally inspired computing – he came up with a very precise and low-power way to put a charge on a floating-gate transistor, which is the basis for flash memory. It was a classic “solution looking for a problem,” which is turning out to be RFID, the little [radio frequency] identity tags to put on things. They’re the ultimate lower-power device – picowatts, whatever you can get out of a little antenna. So instead of just having a “dumb” tag that can tell you its name and nothing more, you get a smart one that updates itself as it goes. You get a package or a product that can tell you its whole history, right there.
TR: Peter Drucker says, don’t solve problems, seize opportunities.
MEAD: Right. If Impinj had looked around and said, “Hey, let’s do RFID,” they would have ended up with a nonrewritable tag. Just like a dozen other companies out there now.
TR: RFID tags for Wal-Mart are a long way from trying to reverse-engineer computers from biological models… MEAD: When you’ve finally got a product, the fact that you were inspired to go that way by thinking about touch and vision and hearing or whatever doesn’t matter much. You’re on to making products, and everything that led up to that falls away.
TR: That’s a little sad, no?
MEAD: Of course it is, but it’s what happens when you start a company. The unlimited potential of your new technology – it’s a huge high just thinking about it. But once it’s manifest, once it becomes a product, it’s not a myriad of anything; it’s one thing. So inevitably, there is a huge postpartum – a sense of all the things you weren’t able to do.
TR: Is that when you pull up stakes?
MEAD: It’s happened with every company I’ve worked with. They get to the point where they’re successful, they’re on a track, and there’s less and less that someone like me can contribute. You actually become a distraction: they’re trying to focus, and you’re wandering around thinking about all these interesting new questions. That’s when it’s time to leave.