Henry Samueli, co-founder and CTO of Broadcom Corporation, and a distinguished alumnus of UCLA, has won the prestigious 2012 Marconi Society Prize and Fellowship. Samueli, whose work led to the explosive growth of the consumer broadband industry, was selected for his pioneering advances in the development and commercialization of analog and mixed signal circuits for modern communication systems, in particular the cable modem.
Those innovations also built the foundation of Irvine, Calif.-based Broadcom Corporation and enabled the company’s subsequent expansion into other broadband markets such as Ethernet networking and wireless communications. Since its founding in 1991, Broadcom has grown to become one of the world’s leading suppliers of broadband communications semiconductors.
The Marconi Prize, an award considered the pinnacle honor in the field of communication and information science, is given each year to one or more scientists and engineers who – like radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi – achieve advances in communications and information technology for the social, economic and cultural development of all humanity. Winners have included scientists whose breakthrough innovations underlie every aspect of modern communications and have contributed to many other fields of technology as well. They include oft-dubbed “fathers of the Internet” Paul Baran, Vint Cerf, both UCLA alumni, Robert Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, also a professor of computer science at UCLA, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Bob Metcalfe; encryption pioneers Whit Diffie, Martin Hellman and Ron Rivest; Internet search engine pioneers Larry Page and Sergey Brin; DSL modem inventor John Cioffi; and breakthrough fiber optics scientists such as Nobel Laureate Sir Charles Kao, Bob Tkach and Andrew Chraplyvy, among others.
Winning the Marconi Prize is particularly appropriate for Samueli, whose career was inspired by an assignment to build a radio in his seventh grade shop class at Hubert Howe Bancroft Middle School in Los Angeles.
“We were required to take shop class and I chose ‘electric shop,’” Samueli explained. “One assignment was to build a simple crystal radio set. I didn’t think it was challenging enough so I asked to build a Heathkit shortwave radio instead.”
Despite his teacher’s attempts to convince him it was too difficult, he tackled the project night after night, following the detailed instructions for soldering wires and assembling the radio piece by piece. On the last day of class he brought it in, plugged it to a wall socket, and, to his teacher’s astonishment, sound came out.
“I wasn’t surprised it worked—I’m sort of a perfectionist—but I had no idea how it worked,” he says. “At that moment it became my mission in life to find out how radios worked. By the time I received my Ph.D. in electrical engineering, I finally did understand it.”
The son of Holocaust survivors who arrived penniless in the US in 1950, Samueli worked weekends in his family’s liquor store in East Los Angeles while attending middle school and high school as a stellar student. With his parents’ encouragement and financial support, he was accepted at UCLA, the only college to which he applied.
“Back then, tuition at UCLA was $600 a year,” says Samueli, “and I could live at home to save money.” He did so all the way through college, earning his bachelor’s degree (1975), master’s degree (1976), and Ph.D. degree (1980), all in electrical engineering.
He never wavered in his choice to become an electrical engineer. His first course in his major was a circuit theory class taught by a relatively new professor, Alan Willson. When Willson subsequently introduced the first graduate digital signal processing class at UCLA, Samueli, then a senior, jumped at the chance to attend. Samueli calls it “a life-changing event.” He was hooked.
Willson, who arrived at UCLA in 1973 from Bell Labs, said Samueli stood out from the beginning. “Things came easy to Henry—nothing seemed hard.” Because Samueli was such an exceptional student, he was permitted to take graduate level courses before finishing his undergraduate degree, and by the time he cashed in his credits for a B.S., he was already tackling his Ph.D. thesis.
Willson agreed to advise Samueli during his undergraduate studies and continued to advise him as he pursued his Ph.D. When they discussed thesis ideas, Willson suggested “a very academic idea for analyzing overflow oscillations in digital filters, something I’d thought about at Bell Labs. I didn’t really expect him to run with it; usually, the first time you suggest a topic to a student they’ll come back and tell you the problems with the idea.”
After several months Samueli reappeared in Willson’s office. “He started by telling me why my idea didn’t work. But he laid out another solution! He was a graduate advisor’s dream student.”
After receiving his Ph.D., Samueli took a job at technology leader TRW (later merged into Northrop Grumman) working on military broadband communications systems. Willson invited him to take a part-time position as a visiting lecturer teaching a graduate-level digital filters course at the same time. He was a successful teacher from the start. “Henry got better student reviews than I did,” Willson says. “Students loved him.”
In 1985, Samueli joined the UCLA faculty full-time as an assistant professor and quickly rose through the ranks. His industrial career had yielded several interesting ideas to pursue and he quickly put together a team of researchers. “One of his strengths was that he knew what was on the cutting edge of communications systems and that was what he set his group to work on,” Willson says. “They were studying big problems that attracted big funding.”
Professor Leonard Kleinrock, a fellow faculty member at UCLA who had earned international repute as one of the lead developers of ARPANET, remembers being pulled aside by a key DARPA funding decision maker.
“You have a world-class digital signal processing designer in Samueli,” Kleinrock said. “It was clear to me then, that Samueli was enormously well-respected outside the university. To see that external confirmation of his brilliance was impressive.”
All the outside attention led Samueli and his colleagues to realize “we had something pretty unique,” Samueli says. He and Henry T. Nicholas, III, one of his former colleagues at TRW and his first Ph.D. student at UCLA, decided to start a company.
“It’s not like we had some grand plan initially,” Samueli said. “We were just doing interesting research, publishing papers and presenting our work at conferences. Suddenly we were getting corporate inquiries from people wanting us to commercialize the technology for use in their products. The fact that we already had very practical experience working on the military electronics systems at TRW made starting a company that much less risky. We just had to figure out how to make the technology cheap enough for mass-market commercial applications.”
In August 1991, Samueli and Nicholas each invested $5,000 and launched Broadcom out of Nicholas’ Redondo Beach garage. Their first major commercial customer was Scientific-Atlanta, which needed chips for an experimental digital cable TV set-top box. They quickly delivered an affordable chipset (re-engineered into a single chip just ten months later) for the world’s first commercially deployed digital cable TV receiver. Scientific-Atlanta and Broadcom announced a strategic partnership in 1994 to develop digital TV technology – a watershed moment for Samueli and his fledgling company, which then had just 24 employees.
Their next big success leveraged Samueli’s extraordinary digital signal processing (DSP) expertise. Competing for a chance at 3Com’s Ethernet business, Broadcom claimed it could create a 100BaseT4 Fast Ethernet chip using DSP techniques rather than purely analog approaches previously in use. No one believed them, but Broadcom delivered a working solution in just one year.
There were many more “firsts” and “fastests” to come, including becoming the first semiconductor company to enable the DOCSIS standards-based solution that now has nearly 100% adoption in the cable modem industry.
On April 17, 1998 Broadcom went public in a record-setting IPO. Samueli continued to serve as Co-Chairman and Chief Technical Officer, shaping Broadcom’s research and development activities while helping coordinate company-wide engineering development strategies. He continued to roll up his sleeves in the lab, too. According to Willson, “Well after Broadcom went public, Henry was still the only guy at the company who did digital filter designs, and he was good at other components in digital circuit design. He worked extremely well with the engineers he hired.”
Nicolaos Alexopoulos, a current Broadcom executive who served as Chair of the Electrical Engineering Department at UCLA (1987-1992) and Dean of the Henry Samueli School of Engineering at UC Irvine (1997-2008), said, “First and foremost, Henry is a perfectionist. His breadth of knowledge coupled with his attention to detail enables him to optimize all levels of a design from systems to architectures to circuits. But equally important, he is a great motivator and team player. He leads by example and inspires his colleagues to achieve as a team far greater than they could as individuals.”
Since its IPO, Broadcom has continued its extraordinary trajectory and Samueli has enjoyed the opportunities afforded by its success. He and his wife Susan launched The Samueli Foundation in 1999, which thus far has donated more than $250 million. Much of their philanthropy has to do with education, including endowing the engineering schools at UCLA and UC Irvine, which were both named in his honor. They also founded the Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library at Chapman University in honor of Henry’s parents. Their foundation supports numerous science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education programs.
“Education made me what I am today,” said Samueli, who still holds a faculty appointment in electrical engineering. “Broadcom would not exist today without the education and experience I gained at UCLA.”
He also believes the future of the U.S. economy is dependent on innovation. “It’s a passion of mine to get kids motivated to create the next Broadcom,” he said.
Kleinrock, who describes Samueli as a “mensch,” said, “There’s something in his personality that is so modest, giving and approachable. I’ve seen him write a million-dollar check for a worthwhile student organization with no fanfare.”
On his selection for the Marconi Prize, Samueli said, “I’m very humbled. I look at the list of Marconi Fellows preceding me and think, ‘I don’t belong in that group.’ It is an amazing honor and I’m deeply flattered. On the other hand, looking at it more broadly, as a company we have indeed accomplished a lot. I’m very proud of the impact we have had on our industry and on society.”
Although Willson never joined his protégé in the university research projects that eventually led to the founding of Broadcom (“The dumbest decision of my life,” he jokes), he and his former graduate student remain close. Willson will introduce Samueli at the annual Marconi Society Awards Dinner in Irvine, Calif. on September 6. More information about the event will soon be available at marconisociety.org.
Among his other honors, Samueli was elected a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in 2000, a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 2003, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. He received UCLA’s Edward A. Dickson Alumnus of the Year Award in 2005, and the UCLA Engineering Alumnus of the Year Award in 2000.
About the Marconi Society
The Marconi Society was established in 1974 through an endowment set up by Gioia Marconi Braga, daughter of Guglielmo Marconi, the Nobel laureate who invented radio (wireless telegraphy). It is best known for the Marconi Prize, awarded annually to outstanding individuals whose scope of work and influence emulate the principle of “creativity in service to humanity” that inspired Marconi. Through symposia, conferences, forums and publications, the Marconi Society promotes awareness of major innovations in communication theory, technology and applications with particular attention to understanding how they change and benefit society.
Additional information about the Marconi Society and the Marconi Fellows can be found at www.marconisociety.org.