Date: Friday , November 21, 2008
Suhas Patil is among the most erudite technopreneurs in Silicon Valley. For years he was an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and later associate professor of computer science at the University of Utah. He entered academia soon after earning his Masters and doctorate in electrical engineering at MIT. But between the two university jobs, he made a fleeting return to India in the hope of serving industry there.
In the early 1970s, India was not only way behind in technology but also its companies conducted no research at all. The companies that wanted to hire Patil apparently wanted him to clone existing models, not undertake original work or research. Disenchanted, he came back to join the University of Utah, where he expected to continue research. After five years there, Patil’s research reached a stage where “either somebody had to adopt it and take it further, and that’s what I was seeking,” he once told an interviewer.
That somebody happened to be General Instrument Corporation, which had also funded some of his earlier research. With the funding, Patil completed work on a software that automated VLSI (very large scale integration) design. The technology permitted even those not trained in silicon technologies to design integrated circuits in six months, a revolutionary step forward in the 1980s. Although in 1981 Patil started Patil Systems, just three years later he joined hands with Mike Hackworth to found Cirrus Logic.
When the Santa Clara Historical Association published the book The Making of Silicon Valley: A 100-Year Renaissance, it counted Cirrus Logic among the companies that shaped the valley. In the book, Hackworth is quoted as saying: “When I fully understood the power of Suhas’ software, it hit me like a ton of bricks that his design approach could be the basis for a new kind of chip company. I could see the opportunity to get complex chips out in just six months using system designers who didn’t require a knowledge of silicon.”
Cirrus Logic “rocketed …to a billion-dollar-a-year run rate faster than any other Silicon Valley semiconductor firm ever made that climb – and without a fab of its own,” the book says.
The company has since lost its luster, perhaps overtaken by the furious pace of technology’s march. Its stock price is at a level it had already reached in 1993. Patil has also stepped aside from the management of the company, and holds the position of chairman emeritus. But he is now an active “angel” investor in the valley and a mentor to many entrepreneurs through the non-profit organization The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE).
Known as a visionary, Patil is said to be flooded with business plans from young entrepreneurs. A national magazine once said Patil only accepted business plans in the form of 20-minute videocassettes and set up meetings with prospective entrepreneurs only if he likes the video. Patil’s portfolio of companies includes RightWorks and NavinMail, in which his wife Jayshree is a senior executive.
Patil was born in Jamshedpur (Bihar) in 1944 and grew up with a strong interest in technology and science. His father repaired radios as a part-time job, and the young Patil worked with Mechano sets and the like and learned English so that he may read Popular Science magazine. He once burned his fingers while attempting to set up a Bunsen burner in his backyard. Such was a passion he displayed for science. Patil also acquired a passion for photography from his father.
He went to the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur where he earned a B. Tech (Honors) degree in electrical engineering. In 1995, the IIT conferred an honorary doctorate degree on Patil.
Last year, Patil donated $1.5 million to MIT’s Laboratory of Computer Science.