EP 266 – Eugene Fitzgerald – CEO and Director at MIT Research Enterprise Singapore – You Have to Start with Great Uncertainty

by | Mar 29, 2023

Asia Tech Podcast was fascinated by its conversation with Eugene Fitzgerald, PhD, the CEO and Director at MIT Research Enterprise Singapore.

Some of the topics Gene covered:

  • Working at Bell Labs
  • Innovation and the commercialization of Strained Silicon
  • His earliest introduction to Singapore
  • Somehow Gene’s interests and Singapore’s interests seemed to be in sync
  • Managing uncertainty while also managing risk
  • How the path of research to market was more complicated than expected
  • Finding the balance between research and commercialization

Other important links:

The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) is a major research enterprise established by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in partnership with the National Research Foundation of Singapore (NRF) in 2007. SMART is the first entity in the Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE) developed by NRF.

Some other titles we considered for this episode, but ultimately rejected:

  1. I Was Stunned, Actually…Stunned
  2. Every Faculty Member Is Essentially Running Their Own Business
  3. I Had No Idea of the Scale Required
  4. I Had More of a View of the Future
  5. We’re Doing Caricatures of Everything
  6. Increasing Man-Machine Interface
  7. It’s a Search for Value
Read the best-effort transcript

Read the best-effort transcript below (This technology is still not as good as they say it is…):

Michael Waitze 0:04
Okay, let’s do this thing. Hi, this is Michael Waitze. And welcome back to the Asia Tech Podcast. Today we are joined by Professor Eugene Fitzgerald, the CEO and Director of Singapore MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, which boils down to SMART…In my next life, I want to be the guy that comes up with these names. Just if for no other reason than just to make me feel smart, which I don’t feel right now. Anyway. It’s okay to call you Gene. Is that okay?

Eugene Fitzgerald 0:29
Yeah, that’s fine. Great to be here. Thanks, Michael.

Michael Waitze 0:31
thank you so much for coming on the show. Before we dig deeply into like the main topics, can we get a little bit of your background for some context.

Eugene Fitzgerald 0:41
I am from the United States, outside of Springfield, Massachusetts, grew up there, like a lot of other people, nothing, nothing unusual, and was the second person from my high school to ever get admitted to MIT as undergrad. But it’s all ever, you know, it was always this kind of kid with the chemistry set. And then the electronics said, that’s all I ever wanted to do. And so I was, you know, just that was my focus. And it was great. Went on to get a PhD. Because, you know, I went to MIT. I was like, I gotta get a job after I get out of MIT, but as doing pretty well, and then one of my professors says, Pick up grad school, and I was like, grad school, what is that? And so then I ended up getting my PhD at Cornell, good for you. And then my dream was always to go work for some important, you know, company. And, you know, these kind of, you know, things you think about when you’re younger, just I want to invent something important, you know, and kind of went to Bell Labs. And then, when the world changed, and kind of corporations stopped doing these kinds of long term, big research, investments, move back to money, and it to be a professor and entrepreneur eventually got involved with Singapore, and the very first program in 1998, which is a predecessor to smart, and then did a SMART program in 2012. And then after that, they asked me to run the whole thing. So that’s a quick, quick overview.

Michael Waitze 2:17
So my family’s from Boston. My mom and dad grew up in Mattapan. You can imagine how old they are. But where near Springfield Did you grew up? Just for my edification. Yeah, I

Eugene Fitzgerald 2:26
grew up in a small town called East Longmeadow. A lot of Yeah, it’s in, you know, Springfield, I think the economy grew last with during the Revolutionary War when it made the Springfield firearms, right. So it’s a very slow, depressing area.

Michael Waitze 2:44
I remember walking out to the mailbox when I was applying to colleges. And I was pretty sure that I was going to get into most of them, I’m sure like you, you did well, in high school. He’s like you said, you had the chemistry set there. You love this kind of stuff? Do you remember that feeling you had when you walked outside? I mean, maybe your mom and dad actually preempted you? And grabbed that letter from the mailbox and came in and was like, You got in?

Eugene Fitzgerald 3:07
Yeah, absolutely. I remember that. It’s like one of those things, you know, that I think it’s burned into your brain, especially for me, because I, you know, for whatever reason, knew I wanted to do technology from a very young age, and I realized highly unusual with my own kids. But, you know, I was like, you know, just always, will really wanted to do that. And so you can imagine, for me, I remember opening up and MIT had a special it was like, at that time, you know, like a little larger things like a little plaque or something. Like, wow, I was like this is I was still and actually

Michael Waitze 3:44
the reason why I wanted to ask this right is because I think people sometimes forget, just like back then today, there’s probably a portal, you probably get an email and choice, but back then you literally could go out to the mailbox every single day and just be like, not yet. Not yet. Not yet. Get it? Because it’s a dream for for kids, particularly whether it’s MIT or some other amazing university to get in. And over time, you’ve basically been there for the rest of your life. Right. So it’s so cool for me. And Bell Labs is really a manifestation of excellence at scale back then, and you also worked at Watson. So you did all these, like, what’s the right thing? Like these amazing things? Back? Yeah.

Eugene Fitzgerald 4:28
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Bell Labs is the kind of image of where I wanted to go. And I remember just like, it’s kind of equivalent to what you’re saying about getting accepted to MIT. I remember that first day. It’s another one of those moments where I walked into Bell Labs, and I had my employee badge picture on it. And I was like a core Bell Labs where, you know, it turns out my lab also was where the transistor was invented one of the shared labs that we had, and you know, it was ever looking at that and saying Like, wow, this is just crazy. So it was another moment like that, of course, the opposite moment is, you know, when a corporation stopped investing, it was very sad when all these classic places years later, I went back to visit Watson, which, of course had changed and Bell Labs is, you know, you’ve devolved. And so, you know, it’s the other side of the equation, you know, kind of like, but you know, that’s another thing about the life terms of, you know, creating new things, being entrepreneur doing those kinds of things. You know, so you got to get a face reality and say, Look, if I want to pursue new things, if I want to think about the future, if I want to build towards that future, really, in hindsight, you’re going to have to leave organizations that you’ve been in, right, so there’s, there’s no choice. But this

Michael Waitze 5:44
is all part of being an entrepreneur right? Back then there were plenty of people that were still at Bell Labs, that remainded Watson that remained at IBM and said, I’m just gonna keep doing this until the end. And there’s some realization inside people that do remember, you said, when you were a kid, like you wanted to invent something and build something big, the whole goal is to just find the platform and the place where that’s possible, as opposed to just staying with what’s existing. And you write a lot of innovation. And I think this is cyclical, has moved away from places like Bell Labs, where si si see all this kind of amazing stuff, where all this stuff was invented, then it moves out to smaller companies. And at some point, those smaller companies don’t become big companies. So it’s just a different stage of development. But I’m really curious how you actually ended up in Singapore? Is it in 1998, which was 25 years ago? What was it in 2012? Like, how did all that happen? And what’s the genesis of smart in Singapore? So I can learn more about that as well.

Eugene Fitzgerald 6:40
Okay, so I went back to MIT to be a professor and 94, that’s when I couldn’t anticipate it wasn’t Bell Labs hung around in its current form a lot longer, especially with the telecom bubble really allowed it to not fix a lot of the issues there. And, you know, some things it wasn’t gonna fix, because of the economy was changing and everything. So I kind of left and that was 94. And then 98 is when the Singapore MIT Alliance, you know, SMA, just not having the RT yet. You know, forms. And, yeah, the way that happened was my field, my own field, originally is electronic materials and semiconductors, right? So at that time, and this is the kind of, I think, I think, the lesson because I continue to do it, which is you have to embrace uncertainty, right? So I kind of said, Look, here I am doing important things, you know, what I did at Bell Labs is already important. And there was a lot of interest in what I invented. But I say, if you look at what’s happening in the globe, you know, a lot of the manufacturing for semiconductors. We’re just seeing this geopolitically now. Right. But it was, it was like in the 90s, very obvious that there was a lot of manufacturing being set up in Asia. So look, I have no, I have like, no connection to Asia, at all there in the early days of SMA, which it was started, really between Bob Brown, who was eventually provost at MIT, and Tony Tan, who was a deputy prime minister of famous w prime ministers, you know, in Singapore. But it did many things at different positions in Singapore, obviously. And they, they were the ones that first conceived of, of having MIT be collaborating with Singapore. And so I was asked by some of the people forming that program because I had an interest in semiconductors, maybe I wanted to, you know, be part of that program. So that’s, that’s how SMA started was first collaborative, but there was no physical infrastructure in Singapore. So just we collaborated and traveled back and forth. We talked together. And then later, after 10 years, after that success, we had relationships, things like that. Then smart was created where they said, Okay, well, what do you want to have? Possibly physical infrastructure in Singapore, then that collaboration was started so smart with the RT, is sort of now the physical embodiment of that says, like, the next step for me, was just, I wanted to first get out and understand Asia and Singapore seemed like a very good place to start off with. And then the rest is history. Yeah. And of course, you know, with semiconductors what I was doing, I’ve traveled all around Asia after that,

Michael Waitze 9:39
what was the perception that you have? Or you had, excuse me? Back in 1998? About Singapore, right. In other words, like my first time in Singapore was December of 1990. So long time ago, right. But by the time we get to 1998, the whole economy in Singapore is changing. It’s moving from manufacturing, and they’ve already made this this decision to move into sort of, right? Because you had creative technologies that was there that were building all this pretty incredible stuff. By the time you get to 1998, what was your perception? And when you finally started going there, like what changed your mind? Were you like, Okay, this is actually going to be a big thing.

Eugene Fitzgerald 10:16
Well, so I wasn’t thinking initially, remember, like, was saying so much about Singapore’s initially, just thinking about it should get out there. Right. Yeah. So when I started learning more about Singapore, I was fascinated, actually. So I was like, Wow, this place is so small. But it’s the way they think about my history of Singapore is that their interests were always kind of where I was going. So in other words, in the research phase, when they were ramping the research element with MIT and in, in 98, to 2008, I was kind of like, already, in my own mind, because of my bell labs work saying, well, the kind of linear research model that we’ve been using in the past really isn’t good enough. Singapore wasn’t worrying about that initially. Right? And so it was kind of following that, but I was still building our innovation more ahead of time, then, you know, kind of Singapore entered this phase. Okay, now we have the r&d infrastructure. Now we’re interested in, you know, how does that translate into economic and other kinds of impact in society? And I was already kind of thinking that. So I think it’s just like, are we are in phase basically. And that’s how I got drawn more and more. That’s how I looked at it, from my perspective is sort of leading edge of where Singapore wanted to go was always moving and being my same interest also,

Michael Waitze 11:36
did you and you know, back then there was also the specter of TSMC. Right? So the Taiwan semiconductor manufacturing was a corporation company, I can’t remember anymore, because I just called TSMC. But did you have a vision back then, as well, particularly coming from a semiconductor background of what that was going to end up being to, I can’t even remember what it was like back in 1998, or even earlier.

Eugene Fitzgerald 11:56
I mean, the function was this was absolutely there, to people at semiconductors. It’s the new model. And there’s actually two UMC and TSMC. We’re both kind of neck and neck back then. And in my first startup, I started going to visit both because we’re doing some research at MIT, we’re doing some some sort of what I call like, you know, fabbing it and sort of an nine university environment in Singapore. And then they had chartered semiconductor back then in Singapore. So I talked to them. So I was totally into the foundry model saying, Look, you know, this the future, we have new technology, which turns out to be in all of our chips today. But at the time, UMC and TSMC, were more aggressive partnering. Yeah. So we ended up talking to them a lot. So it goes way back to that earlier and a lot about, you know, here I was, for us, it was all about, you know, we have intellectual property, but we want to deploy it, you know, in fabs I didn’t understand back then, you know, they’re, like citizens pretty new. And culturally, you know, here I am this American guy talking about intellectual property up front, I realized pretty quickly, you know, like, doing that, you know, I shouldn’t be establishing relationships with these companies. And Taiwan’s in a different way. You guys are pretty young guy. So I didn’t know any of that. Right. So and the cultures were different, right? So

Michael Waitze 13:29
what were the conversations like? Because, again, you’re coming to Singapore, and let’s use it as a proxy for Asia, right, which is something you didn’t know that much about now, you know, a ton about obviously, right? At some point, and I don’t believe in epiphany, but I do believe in acquiring knowledge over time. And then having that knowledge, particularly for people that are intellectual, at their core, figuring out like, hey, the thing that I thought was true, all this information that I have now means that it probably wasn’t true. But now you have to convey that back to I’ll say, the home office, right in Massachusetts. I’m curious what those conversations were like. And I’m aware that back then there was still and probably still is today, this thing we call RW 128, right, with the information highway on it, and all the other stuff that’s going on at the MIT Media Lab and things like that, but I’m just curious what the conversations were like about Asia, going back to the US where you had to maybe convince people like, hey, this thing is going to be huge in the next 20 years.

Eugene Fitzgerald 14:23
Yeah, so I guess with those times, I was a researcher, with other researchers working so I wasn’t in sort of management or anything like that, right. So I’m just giving my personal vision. The great thing about, you know, I think being a faculty member, and especially at MIT, where every faculty member is essentially really running their own business, which people don’t realize, right, but it’s, you know, the classic thing about MIT was, you know, MIT gives you a shingle to put your name out front and then you know, go get your revenue and and You’re right. Yeah, it’s gotten a little bit more, I would say vertical in a way over time, because just necessity of bureaucracy to a certain extent. But when I went there when I was an undergrad, it’s like super flat. I mean, it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s like, there’s professors, and there’s like a president. He’s like, very, very flat, basically, in that in the 90s, was still kind of like that. So I would say, I’m not really, I’m kind of telling people how I’m learning and what I think of things. And definitely, in the early days, there was some faculty that thought that we should be doing anything overseas and in most of those faculty had been in the, in the war to post war two time period where they still had conflicts in their memories. And I mean, MIT played a really important role, right, in World War Two, for strategic things, right. So there was just a very end tail of that when I when I was there. To me, I was kind of like, yeah, University has people, you know, it’s like, get tenure. Right. So it, there was a sort of light? I don’t know, I, I did feel a little bit. Like, I had more of a view of the future. Yeah, for sure. And so and I got drawn in, as I explained before, more and more into Singapore, for for the the way it was advancing. Yeah. So I think the conversation, mostly colleague to colleague, and, you know, I think the beginning SMART program was kind of really, you know, I think, Tony Todd, and, and, you know, MIT, really, you know, Bob Brown especially, had quite a vision there that was going to be very successful. It’s just, you know, a vision like that always takes time to see that. It’s time for it to evolve

Michael Waitze 16:58
the I mean, look, everyone’s an overnight success. 10 years later, right? There’s no such Yeah, but it really is. What can you tell me what the startups were that you did? And like, were they in the material science space in the in the semiconductor space? And then how did they lead into what’s going on today? If

Eugene Fitzgerald 17:13
Oh, yeah, yeah, no, it’s just gets back to Bell Labs a little bit well, even to grad school. So as a grad school, I started collaborating with either an MIT undergrad, I had an internship at TJ Watson IBM’s research lab in in New York. And that was like, fantastic that kept my eye over this, this this vision that I had, and when I worked for incorporation to important research and invent things, right. So that was fantastic. If that dream alive. Then Then when I was in grad school, at Cornell, I started collaborating with, again, Andrew Woodall, who is a national, now a national medalist, US National Medal of Technology, but at that time, I don’t even definitely not want it yet. And so, you know, he was this like, really fantastic mentor, and I just said, Yeah, this is it, you know, important guy like Jerry, at that time, had like zillions of patents at IBM. And, and there was this, you know, looking at these materials going forward, it was clear that people wanted to use more kinds of electronic materials. And not limited to everything up to that point materials that were had the same size, sorry for a little technology here, but all for the same size, crystal structures, right. And so silica, in and these materials, called three fives are like gallium arsenide, all those things, the device films that people were depositing on top, were fairly limited. People could see, well, if I could deposit all sorts of these other semiconductors on top, then we could build new kinds of products. So in those days, when you went to Bell Labs, it was what I call the sort of adventure model of research, they would sit you down and say, you have to be great, right? It’s kind of crazy today, right? But it’s like, they literally sit you down. And so you better be great. Otherwise, they’re gonna move you out to like, you know, normal. Yeah, yeah. And then they would say, you have to do something that’s important in the world, and also it’s a TNC. Right? And so I sat down my immediate manager and said, Well, you know, this sort of the semiconductors that are different have different lattice constant, different size, crystal structure, they’re going to be important in the future, we have to figure out how to improve them. And the problem was, there’s a lot of defects and all this sort of stuff. And then if we did, we could open up new routes. You know, we didn’t really know exactly what applications but we knew that there was zillions of them. So if we just progressed far enough, you know, some value would be producing manager said, go ahead. So that’s kind of how this direction started, we ended up inventing something called string silicone. Initially at Bell Labs at four Kelvin, which is so cold, it’s, you know, just above absolute zero where there’s no motion of anything. And but we demonstrated that the silicon could have extremely high mobility, we get the highest mobility of the world, what that means is we had electrons that carry charge, and they moved extremely fast through silicon kind of pointing to for for those of us into this stuff, that, wow, if you could bring that up the room temperature, you could change, you know, ever see Masilela at sea moss is, you know, what all of our microprocessor built out of, and all this sort of stuff. So that was the beginning of the dream from these very exotic kind of physics experiments to dreaming of that impacts. I found out, of course, after that, you know, became world famous, we get lots of credit, and all this sort of stuff. But I started making, you know, some trips out to Allentown where manufacturing was done. And, you know, I was just a young guy, right? So I was, Hey, man, like, this is like fast electronics, like, don’t you want to put this into your products? And they’re like, No, like what? You know. And then I started realizing, Oh, I see, like, the path for research to market, which ended up being a theme for the rest of my life, you know, the path of sort of research to market was more complicated than that, then a linear model research where people believe, right,

Michael Waitze 21:35
so how does this work, though, right, because I think this is a this is sort of an enigma for people. Right? You do all this incredible research right up, I’m probably gonna get some of these terms wrong. But you make this determination that says there’s a way that there’s a surface that’s been created with these crystals is silicon, right? And the electrons move between them if we can get them to move faster if we can get them to move at room temperature? Yeah, because what do you say for Kelvin, it’s really cold. But everything we do exists at room temperature at some level, right? Maybe it’s refrigerated a little bit. But if we can get that to happen, we can change the future of the way electronics work, and then create products we haven’t even conceived yet. Totally, but explaining that to people that are just like selling stuff, it’s just hard to get that message across. So can you talk a little bit about this idea of how to go from research into commercialization, and some of the places along the way where people don’t understand where the roadblocks are, if that makes sense?

Eugene Fitzgerald 22:29
Yeah, absolutely. So this is a, you know, a lifetime of learning, right? Oh, yeah. I’ll try to try to summarize it. So I wouldn’t say that. First of all, the desire to do this, I had some colleagues that I worked with. And they kept asking me, like, why are you doing this? Like, you could just lecture for the rest of your life on strain silicone? And, you know, all this sort of stuff? That I didn’t have an answer for them. But I, you know, there’s another why was I interested in that? Why do I always want to build things that that I don’t have an answer for, but probably has to do with my background or whatever. So, you know, I was sort of a single guy, I had no idea as to the scale required those The other thing, I would you know, how would I know it? You hear this from entrepreneurs all the time, I didn’t realize I was entrepreneurial back then. But because I’m in a large corporation, but I go, it doesn’t matter. I said, you know, somehow this can happen, and it does happen. So, you know, we just have to figure it out. And, you know, I’ll tell you, one of the things I couldn’t believe was that I couldn’t believe they spent all this money on research, but they didn’t think about how stuff moved to market. It shocked me as a young guy, I thought, well, I invented something important now. It has to have a path. And I went to my manager who was a physicist, and he said, go talk to the marketing people. So I went to talk to the market. This is unbelievably funny, right? I mean, I literally went to talk to people now ATT made all their money at that time, from long distance service, right? It was trying to become a real company, it started trying to become a real company to try to learn. But it couldn’t it couldn’t win anything. Right. And, and so the marketing guys looked at me, like you’re talking about some future electronics that may benefit our telecom systems, like way down the road. They’re just like, it was instructive to me because they understood that right? The thing that really started bothering me was that you know, something that I learned, the closer you are to the customer, the more money you made, even though you could be driving the place into the ground. Right so so you know, that’s one thing I learned in this whole process but so then I said, alright, you know, I’ll do it step by step. I want the factory but then you realize, you know, what, if you put new stuff into the factory, their jobs are on the line, right? So you can’t have this sort of, you know, academic, you know, you just don’t under stick is a typical thing right on our side. You know, you just don’t understand the importance of the future. And all this sort of stuff. I mean, because they’re like, look, if I put this new stuff in here that ruins my yield on my normal product, I’m done that I’m done. Right? So then you realize it’s a much more complicated process, which we ended up formalizing today, we use that in smart to try to launch projects ahead of time. We can talk about that later, if you want. Yeah. So it’s sort of like how do you do research to have? How do you launch research 510 years at a time, so you have a chance for having higher impact? It’s a new way to do research, people think that this sort of linear r&d process is the way to go. But even the the reason I chose this project to work on you’ve heard what I mentioned, right? It’s a combination of how’s it going to improve things for AT and T and the world? at&t, it was already at that time focus on how do I build new products. So it wasn’t just only, you know, abstract academic interest in a domain, it was always interface. So the reason that project was selected was different. The way that it has to get to market over time is different. So, you know, the process is clearly not this. I was just surprised young guy like, you know, wow, you know, nobody, nobody is paying attention to this, you know,

Michael Waitze 26:16
the world has seemed to come full circle though, on this right. In other words, now every research thing seems to be waiting just to be commercialized. I want to get back to this concept, though of I didn’t even know I was an entrepreneur. It Don’t you think this is, in a way, kind of still true today, for the first time somebody build something from scratch. Like, I just have so many stories like this from when I was a kid where like, one of my dad’s friends was really into X, whatever it was. And then he was into y. And then he was into C and was just trying to find some way to make money, and literally feed his family. And then one day, he just had this thing that just exploded. He had no business experience, no, like marketing experience and nothing. And then he had to figure out on the fly. Oh, wait a second. Now, I’m a businessman. I didn’t even know that before. You know what I mean? So this idea of taking something from research into commercialization? You said the first time I didn’t even know I was doing it, but I wanted to build something. Yeah, that’s true for most people. No, I mean, sure. You can run me through the SMART program and how that works now, right? Well, you have targeted research that has a goal of becoming commercialized in five years. Now that works. But I think for most people, they’re just like, God, I really wish I could get a taxi home from this presentation, without having to wait 35 minutes in the rain.

Eugene Fitzgerald 27:30
So there’s a lot here, especially what you said about how we come full circle, actually, we came full circle in a way that. So so we’re doing caricatures of everything, we’re actually quite, quite inefficient. And we’re going to see the consequences of this over the next couple of years. But I agree with you 100%, that that’s how it’s supposed to work and how it has worked in the past, what we’ve been doing in the last 20 years is kind of on all of those interfaces, you know, we’ve been trying to structure a lie is this, and we’re not letting people follow their normal path. So what I mean by this is that, you know, there’s forces wanting to make, you know, like, you go to college and you choose to be an entrepreneur, right? You just say, I’m going to, I’m going to academically learn how to be an entrepreneur. And this is like, you know, like a disease over the last 20 years, I have a good friend, I wrote my innovation book with Carl strim. We used to be the head of the Kauffman Foundation. And you know, you said, you know, you can correlate the new entrepreneurship programs with a decrease in productivity growth.

Michael Waitze 28:42
But it’s super interesting, right? Because in a way, it’s kind of like, entrepreneurial cosplay, for lack of a better term, right? Like, when you were doing it, you weren’t thinking, Okay, I’m gonna do this. And I’m gonna do it just like you went through the steps and figured it out. Yeah. So how does that translate though, into the SMART program, where you’re trying to institutionalize it, but not make it so rigid that you take away? Exactly those feelings of we got it kind of thing, right. So

Eugene Fitzgerald 29:08
there’s the Okay, so if you look at long term research, there’s a problem of two conveniences, which are kind of, you know, first structure realization. So, you know, if you say, Well, I can’t predict the future, right? We can’t. Right. So it’s all very complicated, like what I was doing at Bell Labs, trying to figure out how to bring this thing forward. So complicated. I have to focus on my research, right? So when answer is, look, I just do research. And whatever interests me and then it’s the world’s problem to figure out where it goes. So that has led us down to a path where, you know, there’s lots of studies now showing the world there’s more and more countries getting into the research game. You know, we have more and more investment in research and the most studies are showing of course, that worldwide productivity growth has been going down right So, now I’m not doing research that good. It’s just that it’s obviously a necessary but insufficient part of this, right? And so the other solution is, oh, well, I’m going to structure it so that we target something that we care about today. Right, that everybody cares about today, and a very specific thing, you know, like, Oh, this is like the thing we have to solve today. And then I’ll do research, which, you know, takes 10 years, let’s say, because if you’re on a research project, I don’t have it all figured out, or whatever. And of course, you know, if you and I know the world, you came from the finance, you know, 10 years from now, the markets, the industries, you know, everything’s changed, right? So clearly, what we’ve been doing is all wrong, it’s not gonna lead anywhere. And it’s in between these two things, right, you have to start off with great uncertainty, but still embedded in the world and understanding what the world looks like, get your research results. And as the world evolves around, you kind of steer those research results towards phenomena that’s going to be, you know, able to have a big market impact in the future. So I think it’s this remember the process, you’re just describing where the individual is going through? If you think about that process, it’s a search for value, right? You’re not, you’re not pre conceiving all of these things. It’s a search for value. And so essentially, if I had to summarize, you know, how we should be launching these long term research projects, which we’re embedding in smart. It’s sort of saying, Look, we openly admit we can’t predict the future, right? We start off with uncertainties that we want to solve. But then we’re doing as we go forward in the context of the real world, we we search for value as we move forward, and we decrease uncertainty in the research domain. And that is essentially from your background, essentially, the investment process, we haven’t joined investment process to the sort of activities long term activities of and you’re right, the problem is that people want to overstretch realize it, which means you squeeze out uncertainty, which means you create no value. That’s the problem.

Michael Waitze 32:05
Yeah. But also, you then eliminate people who don’t have access to these institutional programs from actually inventing or creating things from scratch. Whereas if I can’t get into program x, or program y, it doesn’t preclude me from actually thinking about where that search for value ends, right.

Eugene Fitzgerald 32:22
Folks, complicated the number of things that are sort of platform like the transform things in the future, offer lots and lots of people entrepreneurship, opportunities that are not affiliated with that first platform, right. So that that’s where what we’re trying to do is the platform things, we’re saying, look, if I transform biotech in this way, if I transform integrated circuits in this way, you can be somebody in the world that once those things are underway, you can see I can build the business on that platform. It’s that’s kind of the way to look at it. You know, we are kind of oversimplify everything. We’re saying. Everybody’s an entrepreneur, every is a long term innovator. Everybody could be the truth is, I mean, you can’t that can’t be the case, right? But we have to know where are we doing the sort of real fundamental platform transformation things where where is it that people that don’t have the luxury of those long timelines and these institutions or whatever, you know, how are they going to build business on top of that? And anyway, that’s, that’s kind of how I bring all that together.

Michael Waitze 33:30
Can I get your view on? And again, I’m, I don’t even know how to say this. I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about this as you are, right. But I do follow this right. I’ve been into tech for my whole life. I remember carrying my first Macintosh when I was in college, and just thinking, okay, I can throw away the white out in the typewriter now. Yeah, I still have to borrow because I can’t afford to buy one, but I can still borrow it from that dude. And that dude has plenty of money, I’m gonna borrow his Mac to write my paper because it’s just so much easier. But if I had predicted to you and I just want to use again, Apple as a proxy, if I had predicted to you in 1990, something that Apple was going to go through to trip chip transitions, right? One from PowerPC to Intel x86 and then into running their own chips based on RM you may have said, Sure, but the rest of the world would have laughed at me as you watch that progression and also your own research and development in the electronic materials in semiconductor space. Can you just walk me through like what that looked like to you and then what it portends for the future of chips and electronic design going forward.

Eugene Fitzgerald 34:35
So those jumps are a core business related jumps, right. So they’re broader than just technology that’s during the phase of Moore’s Law continuing. And so from my point of view as more looking at the bill ABS thing that was just talking about this sort of strain silicon stuff that was because he didn’t exactly know when silicon would change but We knew that kind of just shrinking transistors in every way, was going to run out of steam probably within the next 10 years. And it would have actually, that’s the invention that we did. So strain silicon was necessary to allow the beginning of what’s called equivalent scaling. So the numbers you see today that describe the dimension of the supposedly dimension transistor, there’s really, there’s no relevance to those things really, just like the next density of transistors, started way back in 2004, which was the first deployment Astrotrain, silicon and products. And what it allowed was the density of transistors to continue, even though the dimensions of the transistors, the gates and all that stuff, were not progressing as fast as they were before. So that’s a great, it’s a great interesting story and about another transition for me where when you do something really important, you start to get a lot of aggression from the marketplace. Because I think as a scientist, you, you kind of think, Oh, that’s great, you know, no one’s gonna love this. Everything will love it and be happy, right? If you if you’re doing something that’s going to, you know, be a strategic problem for one of the large semiconductor players, they’re gonna, they’re gonna come after you, right? This is this was another growing up thing on the business side that I do. But so those transitions, I think I was thinking more like, how do I keep? How do I, how do I, you know, the original ideas, how do I invent something? And you can you can progress in those chips in a different way. That was the original idea. But what happened was, while we had this, my first startup company, we’re going out talk to the leading edge guys. And they all started saying, no, we want to use your stuff with actually, Moore’s law. Right? And I was like, wow, they must not be able to make the next transistor. Right. So that was

Michael Waitze 37:02
pretty cool. It’s a hint right into what they’re going through.

Eugene Fitzgerald 37:05
Yeah, you got the keys to the kingdom, right. They’re like, we can’t build, you know, the next generation of transistors, right. So and that was really exciting. So So that transition, and I would say is, IBM had very good r&d for all those years. And manufacturing, you know, their business started, you know, first with the services business, remember the shifting, you know, over time, what happen is just less important to the company. And then Intel, you know, aggressively tried to position the x 86 All these years, but then what happen is that risk was always going to be more efficient for mobile that took years to appear, right? And then as usual, classic, disruptive the real Christiansen definition of disruption, which is that it grew in the background, but then when, when it’s available in mobile, and good for mobile, people are like, Hey, can I just use these for my data center? Can I just use? So it’s this long, long path? So? So yeah, it wasn’t too surprising. But there are other things going on in the marketplace that that causes transition this to happen.

Michael Waitze 38:14
And what are you working on now?

Eugene Fitzgerald 38:17
So now, this 10 year program, we did it smart was to say, okay, all that stuff is maturing. Right. So as great as that was, right. We launched this in 2010. We said, silicon integrated circuits, because it’s the manufacturing of the world in semiconductors. Where is our new silicon chips gonna be really, really important? And how do we make those with an advantage, you can’t do just with silicon, right. And so that’s we started a research program. And then after, after all these years, we’ve been able to have a create all the research pieces that we needed to essentially put gallium nitride into silicon integrated circuit. So you still have all the transistors for for CMOs and all that. But you add gallium nitride, and it allows you to build new kinds of integrated circuits that are important for a rvr, 5g 16 things like this. So we’ve essentially said look, silicones gonna be, you know, tasked to create new kinds of integrated circuits over here. And in those spaces, you’ll have volumes and value that’s similar to microprocessors of the past. So computing kind of matures, memory kind of matures, and they become commoditized over time, and it’s these other chips that determine all of the value in the system. So in I think people are seeing that just now but we saw 10 years ago, now we have a startup company in Singapore, it’s a new integrated starting company, which I think is the really kind of the first you know, new integrated circuit company in decades because based on some new aspect of, of silicon, are you

Michael Waitze 39:57
getting the same response that you got when you did this? initial strain silicone thing where you went there and said, Hey, we have this thing. And they were like, okay, look, don’t tell anybody just get away from us. If we could shut you down. We do it right now. Are you feeling the same thing? And if you’re absolutely, right,

Eugene Fitzgerald 40:11
yeah, totally. And this is, I’m amazed you brought up that point, actually, because that was another thing I couldn’t believe. So. So after st slicker became pretty famous, right, you know, in the this kind of, right. So, so I was thinking, you know, okay, now I’ve been verified, right? Like, this is like, no, that’s like for Calvin all the way to commercialization and all this sort of stuff. Right. And, and I was still pretty young after that process. But then when I started seeing in, probably around 2008 2009, this is going to be the next thing. Yeah. I was surprised that because I got attention because of why but it was the same process all over again. And then I realized that there’s this innovation process going on, which is a dominant thing. That sure you have some, you know, reputation and ability to, you know, interact. I knew manufacturers better and things like this. But the fact that same every time is instructive. Right? What it is, right? Yeah, it’s about management minute. On my side, it’s managing uncertainty. On their side, it’s always managing risk right away. And that part doesn’t change. Right. So but I was shocked, because it’s kind of what you’re just pointing out. I was like, Well, I see the same thing. Right. Yeah. Absolutely.

Michael Waitze 41:39
Yeah. I mean, at some level, great entrepreneurs are like six year old boys, right? They’re just so excited about the thing that they’ve created. And they run into the living room to tell mom and dad, I got this. But in the middle of that conversation, mom and dad have company over where they’re drinking, you know, champagne and smoking cigars. You’re like, You’re interrupting us right now,

Eugene Fitzgerald 41:55
Yeah, exactly.

Michael Waitze 41:57
But that’s what it feels like.

Eugene Fitzgerald 41:59
When already that is I remember, it’s strange slogan. I remember, there was a moment where, because we had been talking to the cool thing about that was because everybody needed it. At one point, our little small company was interacting with every semiconductor, like big semiconductor company in the world. So we actually had a better picture than any of the individual floors, about what was going on the world which people were getting this a huge advantage for startups with new things where you actually get a better picture because everyone, not everybody’s interacting with the large companies like that, right? So so and, and I remember, we were talking to CTOs of all the semiconductor companies, and they were still a little bit in this mode you’re talking about literally, because you know, you can see momentum building, you can see things. And about, like, over one year, there are public statements on this topic of strain silicone, switch. And now they’re like, I used to have this view I wanted, I had the slide, which had all these quotes. And I lost it over the years. But there was a site I put out where every one of them came up, said, Well, we all know that streets look, and we all know and this was like in a context of like a year or two, right? It was interesting learning experience for me, because what from like still naysaying to, like, everyone knows this has to be deployed, like within two years is crazy. And it tells you that the of course invention, and research can’t be separated from these kinds of processes, because that’s how it goes to market. Right?

Michael Waitze 43:32
So you run these risks, though, right? Like I like to say, every time I have an idea, I like to socialize people about that idea slowly so that by the time it becomes inevitable, you’re already there. But you run this risk, right? Of if I start telling people too early, maybe they’ll go and do it. And then the other thing you realize is you just have to learn how to out execute people. So you can’t be afraid of that socialization process. We do this all the time in our business. I’m sure you do it in yours now. But again, it’s the way you present it, you can present it, like I said before, and it’s me being guilty of this of like being like that six year old kid of like I did it, I had the erector set and I build this thing and it’s here. As opposed to I’m just in the middle of this process. I’m testing out this thing. I think it’s going to be important blah, blah, blah. And by the time you get to the point which they’re they’ve already gone through that one to two year process of everybody knows that strain silicone is important is already there. No.

Eugene Fitzgerald 44:28
Yeah, yeah. I mean, in fact, it is the same in the end, although you know, I like you said independently had to figure this out. But if you look at the first company, Strensall company, I think my co founder and I was my firt. One of my first grad students make Bulsara he and a, I think we talked to over 40 companies in the supply chain, you know from you know, materials level process level all the way up to end product chip design comm billions. And what I learned was that in hindsight, just what you said, what kind of saw, you know, we didn’t know we were doing it, but we’re kind of softly selling this thing even ran a fine hook so we can progress. But you’re also simultaneously, like you said, preparing. And then what happened is when it became important, everybody started coming to us. Uh, hey, those guys those translocon Guys, right, let’s go, let’s go talk to them. So it is the process we talk about one advantage we have in what we do is we’re going to talk about these sort of longer term, you know, people calling it deep tech kind of things is that it takes longer for people to believe, also, the barriers to entry is a huge thing in your business. The barriers to entry are low, but the barriers to entry in in our stuff are pretty high. So when I mean, of course, that’s where finance comes in, because they’re looking for that moment where the barriers to entry are so high. And yeah, something’s super fundamental like this, the yield can be high at that moment, right? So, so that’s kind of the little bit difference. We have, like in this new company, we have army of intellectual property built behind it was took, you know, a decade together, we have all these research results, we have all these partners, you know, that kind of stuff, right? So, but it’s still the same process, you’re talking about same process?

Michael Waitze 46:18
Do you have philosophical discussions internally, as you start developing more and more non trivial technology, right. And as you’ve seen the progression from let’s go back to strength silicon, where went into its first product in 2004, and that excitement around that, and now building something completely different, again, in your search for value. As technology advances, it becomes so much more powerful, and its ability to process information. Do you have these philosophical discussions around, we can take these chips and then create things that mimic the use of an eye or the use of an ear or can sense smell? And can take haptics to the next level? Next level? And as you said, can create these immersive experiences using VR and XR? What is the philosophical, not ending? But outcome of these things? Do you have these discussions as well? So not only can you create these technological innovations, but what’s the impact on society of them, too? Are you talking about that as well?

Eugene Fitzgerald 47:21
I think we talked about that we think of the market spaces. There’s so much, you know, in all the dimensions that we’ve talked about, that you you’re pretty laser focused on those early markets and trying to match your production to that and all this sort of stuff, right? And you have your customers and the customers are reputable, right? We don’t do see don’t really talk about the side thing, although in the current age, I would say, you know, the sort of semiconductor thing becoming a geopolitical football, the other applications of semiconductors becomes into play, because you try to steer away from, you know, those kinds of things, right. So I would say that, you know, but in terms of, you know, if Apple Google meta, meta, all these guys are able to build the, you know, the metaverse. And by the way, my view of the metaverse looking from a chip point of view is just it’s just increasing man machine interface. I think people look at this and some sort of strange way. All it is, is that we’ve been merging. We’ve been able to go into machine world and machine world has been it’ll come into our world. And it’s increasing with time effect, go back to the telephone. That’s the metaverse, right? Because you’re projecting your voice over distance. And people all of a sudden are like, it’s like they’re over there. But they’re not right. And all we’ve been doing this whole time is kind of merging those two worlds more more like what you and I are doing right now. Right? And it’s a natural progression from my point of view, and I look at it a kind of a different way. So I just look at it as increasing productivity, increasing living standards, this is what it’ll do. I don’t have a big philosophical thought on on sort of, you know, we should stop innovating or inventing or anything like that.

Michael Waitze 49:17
No way. But here’s what I do think this idea of this increasing the man machine interface is actually something that’s really important to me. At some point, virtual reality becomes reality. We can’t know, at any level, the interactivity that we have with any other interface, what it’s going to bring, or where it came from, to be fair, right. So I like to think about this a lot. And I like to think about it in the context of media. I’ll leave you with this thought too, though, right? If you can build chips that are powerful enough to recreate virtual reality in a way that looks like reality, then this experience that you and I are having is going to dramatically change. We’re working on this actually. We are supposed to, you know, so that instead of you and I looking like we’re in a box, we’re working on this thing to use the most advanced technology to be able to make it look like you and I are in the same place and that we can change that place in real time in the same way that I can do. Here this, right. Yeah. But I, what I want to do is I want to build this thing, and we’ll work on this so that you can actually be on that mountain with me. And and change the tenor of the discussion. Sorry, go ahead.

Eugene Fitzgerald 50:31
No, I think that’s, I think that’s coming. And people underestimate, I think, you know, I look at people’s reactions to the metaverse and it’s just like when I go out and talk to people manufacturing about our new our new semiconductors and trying to design integrate new things. So I can make new kinds of integrated circuits. When you find out as a lot of people, their imagination isn’t broad enough to to see or their experience and imagination is broad enough to see what is really possible. And they underestimate the impact of each one of these stages. And you can see that if you look backwards, right, and I think it’s true, just what you’re saying for sure. Which is that the you know, real telepresence field dreaming about for a long time. It’s not this thing that’s just like, oh, yeah, we’ll just kind of do that. And then, you know, I’ll have better zoom or something, people underestimate that they pictures, zoom. And they go, Oh, it’d be like a better resume. And it’s like, no, no, no, you like, old different way to have productivity. And, you know, it’ll change transportation, it’ll change. It’ll change, travel, all this stuff. And I think that’s the reality. And that’s what’s next. And we want to build the chips that are important in the world. Right. So

Michael Waitze 51:52
That is the perfect way to end. Professor Eugene Fitzgerald, the CEO and Director of Singapore, MIT Alliance and Research Technology and entrepreneur, professor and just so much more than that. This was such a killer conversation. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did. Thank you so much for doing that.

Eugene Fitzgerald 52:07
I did, Michael. Thanks very much. It was great.

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