Where Does Innovation Come From?

Mike Gianfagna

Dec 19, 2021 / 4 min read

In previous posts, I’ve discussed innovation from several viewpoints. What drives it, what technology enables it, and who has access to it are just some examples. As the year draws to a close, I’m thinking about a different aspect of innovation – where the epicenters of innovation have been and how they have changed.

The motivation is a bit unusual. My wife and I recently moved from the Bay Area to New Jersey. We are originally from that area, so after a brief 29-year stint in Silicon Valley, we’re heading back to our roots. The place we chose to live is a new development in Holmdel, New Jersey. It is the largest urban redevelopment project in the U.S. today. The project aims to convert the prior Bell Laboratories facility located there into an urban center with surrounding housing. One of those houses is ours. The memories of Bell Labs got me thinking about how the zip code for innovation has evolved.

Augmented Reality

Innovation in the East

Growing up in the N.Y. metropolitan area afforded great access to innovation. My first job was at RCA Corporation. Its worldwide semiconductor operations was located in Somerville, New Jersey. RCA Labs was in Princeton, New Jersey. This is where David Sarnoff and his team of engineers invented color television, among many other innovations. There were a lot of places like that in those days. Not far away was a crown jewel of innovation – Bell Labs Murray Hill and Holmdel. These were massive, over-the-top facilities that housed some of the greatest minds of our time. The Holmdel facility was a two-million-square-foot reflective glass cube. Perhaps the largest mirror in existence.

Bell Works Holmdel | Synopsys

It is here that Somerset Development Corporation is creating an indoor, climate-controlled, mixed-use facility out of that two-million-square-foot structure. It’s called Bell Works and it already has a library, post office, restaurants, shops, and office space. Things like extraterrestrial radio emissions, undersea cables, and satellite transmission systems were pioneered at this facility. It will be interesting to see what the new office tenants will come up with.

There are many more examples of innovation in the east. Beyond RCA and Bell Labs are companies like General Electric (GE), Digital Equipment Corporation, and IBM. Let’s not forget that Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein hail from the east coast.  There are two specific stories about GE and IBM worth mentioning.

In the 1980s I was part of a large RCA contingent visiting IBM’s semiconductor facilities. We were looking for joint venture opportunities. One brisk fall morning, we were picked up by buses at an IBM-run hotel facility and brought to a huge IBM auditorium. The person who kicked off the event started with, “Welcome ladies and gentlemen to IBM, where we employ more people in semiconductor research than all of Silicon Valley combined, times three.”  That statement stayed with me.

In 1986, GE bought RCA, a huge transaction touching many businesses. I was part of RCA Solid State merging with GE Semiconductor. I ran the CAD group (as it was called then). I recall visiting the GE Semiconductor headquarters in Research Triangle Park at One Micron Drive. I always felt that choice of address was a bit short-sighted. While there, I met a guy who was leading GE’s logical design effort. He had just finished his PhD thesis in logic synthesis by developing a program called Socrates. That person was Aart de Geus and, as they say, the rest is history. I hope you were able to catch Aart and the rest of the Synopsys management team ringing the opening bell at NASDAQ recently.

Innovation Moves West

While the East Coast was having a field day with innovation, a movement began on the West Coast around the same time. Many years before, the so-called traitorous eight left Shockley Semiconductor to form Fairchild Semiconductor. This company and its spinouts created the vibrant and famous Silicon Valley region, south of San Francisco. Throughout the 1980s and for several decades, the epicenter of innovation settled here. I won’t bother naming all the companies, we all know them. One point worth mentioning is regarding that talented engineer I met at GE. He left the company, taking his synthesis invention with him, founding Optimal Solutions. When the company relocated to Silicon Valley, the name was changed to Synopsys.

Semiconductors and EDA flourished in Silicon Valley during this time. There were so many inventions and innovations it’s hard to keep track of all of them. While Silicon Valley was arguably the epicenter for this kind of innovation, it was not a monopoly. Substantial contributions were also made by Texas Instruments. I recall the leader of semiconductors, Bob Rozeboom. A bigger-than-life individual with a take-no-prisoners attitude. The East Coast of the U.S. continued to innovate, as did many places in Europe and Asia. IMEC in Leuven and CEA-Leti in Grenoble are examples. In fact, the name of the early EDA company Silvar-Lisco stood for Silicon Valley Research, Leuven Industrial Software Company. Enough EDA trivia.

Of course, this discussion can’t be complete without a nod to Dr. Morris Chiang and the incredible foundry empire he built called TSMC.

Innovation Is Everywhere

A movement started over the past 15 to 20 years in Silicon Valley. It’s not all about silicon anymore. While chips continue to enable innovation, the software that is run on those chips is now leading the way for innovation. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Salesforce rose to the front lines of innovation, and Silicon Valley migrated north, towards San Francisco and ultimately over the entire planet. You can read the whole story of this metamorphosis in an informative paper available on the home page of Synopsys. Thanks to a hyper-connected world, innovation can now come from almost anywhere, fueled by chips that can also be designed almost anywhere. The pandemic has accelerated this trend, but it was going to happen regardless.

During the holiday season, we all like to reflect about the past year and what the next year will bring. I can’t wait to see what new innovations come to life next year, and where they will come from. The technology revolution happening all around us is truly a bright spot. When you consider the future, focus on those bright spots.

Happy Holidays.

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