Irwin Jacobs: From Telecom Mogul to Salk Institute Leader

By Chris Emery, The San Diego Union-Tribune

December 27, 2016

Irwin Jacobs recently stepped down as chairman of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, replaced by Gateway computer founder Ted Waitt. During Jacobs’ decade-long leadership, the institute hired two presidents — first Dr. William Brody and then Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, who took on the role a year ago.

During Jacobs’ tenure, the institute also conducted a capital campaign that raised $330 million, exceeding its goal by $30 million.

Jacobs discussed those highlights and other Salk achievements during a recent interview with science writer Chris Emery at the institute. The San Diego Union-Tribune is republishing a slightly edited version of that Q&A, which first appeared in the magazine Inside Salk.

Irwin Jacobs earned his place in tech history as founding CEO of Qualcomm, leading it from an underdog San Diego company into a worldwide force in digital wireless communications technology and equipment. He retired from the Qualcomm board in 2012.

With his Qualcomm fortune, Jacobs and his wife, Joan, have financially supported a wide range of causes. They have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to institutions such as UC San Diego, the San Diego Symphony, the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, and the new UCSD Jacobs Medical Center.

The Salk Institute also has benefited from the couple’s philanthropy. They first became involved with the life sciences institute in 2004, helping to establish the Crick-Jacobs Center for Computational and Theoretical Biology, which uses computer modeling to study how the brain processes information.

The couple also established a challenge grant to encourage other donors to endow 20 chairs for senior scientists. For every $2 million that a person contributed toward an endowed chair at the institute, Joan and Irwin Jacobs added $1 million to achieve the $3 million funding level required to fully endow a chair for a Salk senior scientist. All 20 such positions have been established.

And they launched Salk’s Innovation Grants Program, which supports riskier but potentially very rewarding research projects that might otherwise not receive funding.

Road to the Salk Institute

Q: You had a long and successful career in academia and later in industry at Linkabit and Qualcomm. Some people would have kicked their feet up in retirement on a beach somewhere. Why have you and Joan devoted so much of your time and resources to service and philanthropy?

A: I enjoyed a very fulfilling academic experience at MIT and UC San Diego, followed by a most rewarding business career, co-founding and leading Linkabit in 1969 and Qualcomm in 1985. During that period, I was fortunate to work with very good people on exciting projects, translating new ideas into useful products. I have always enjoyed learning about new areas, particularly in engineering and science.

When I retired, Joan and I decided to continue family tradition and focus on using our time and resources to support interesting nonprofit institutions. We choose areas that have the potential to impact many, including research, education from K-12 to university, social and community needs, and cultural activities. We enjoy working with projects that have well-defined goals and good leadership.

Q: You have been involved in many philanthropic endeavors. What attracted you to Salk?

A: The presence of the Salk Institute in La Jolla was one important factor in our decision to move here from Boston in 1966. Then, following retirement from Qualcomm, I became interested in learning more about biology and Salk, of course, was very attractive for its world-renowned research program.

But I think what convinced me to later become involved was a lunch I had at the Salk in March 2003. Francis Crick, Sidney Brenner, Rusty Gage, Chuck Stevens and Terry Sejnowski were there, and the discussion was fascinating. I found that neuroscience had connections back to my work in information theory and communications which could be pursued.


Q: Is there anything from your tenure as chairman of the Salk’s board that you are particularly proud of?

A: A lot of exciting things happened during my tenure as chair. Perhaps foremost, we selected two new presidents for the institute. That was a bit of a challenge, and I ended up being happy with the outcome in both cases.

For the first, I was given a notebook full of names and did a lot of research. I came across Bill Brody‘s name and thought he’d be ideal if we could lure him away from Johns Hopkins. Luckily, that all worked out and he served six years as a very successful president at the Salk.

When Bill retired, we began a broad search. But when we learned that Elizabeth Blackburn would consider such a step in her career, we focused on attracting her to Salk. I am very pleased that we succeeded.

Another significant event occurred early in my time as chair, and that involved guiding Salk into becoming one of the founding members of the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, which continues to play a significant impact on science on the Torrey Pines Mesa.

Q: Are there particular areas of Salk research or projects that you’ve found most intriguing?

A: All of the areas of research are progressing well, often yielding surprising results. Neuroscience, because of its breadth, because it does have a connection to information theory, and because of increasing progress in understanding the brain at many levels, is perhaps most intriguing.

Brain research also requires substantial engineering effort to be able to sense what is happening in the brain. Indeed, the National Academy of Engineering chose reverse engineering of the brain as one of its “Grand Challenges.”

Of course, the allure of the Salk is its broad and innovative approach to science. We’ve made great progress in learning the biology of many cancers, leading to personalized treatments based on sequencing an individual’s tumors. From a scientific and even an artistic point of view, it’s exciting to see the work in biophotonics, allowing us to visualize life at a level previously impossible.

Q: Looking around your house, clearly you and Joan have a love of art. Is there something that art and science share that draws you to both?

A: We enjoy being surprised by new ideas and forms. Artists and scientists are interested in innovative outlooks on our world and are willing to experiment and take risks — and they must have persistence. We are often intrigued by the simplicity of the end results masking the many approaches explored along the way.

La Jolla’s appeal

Q: I noticed your house is very modern. What was your first reaction when you saw the architecture of the Salk?

A: During a trip to San Diego in 1965, Joan and I had a chance to explore the region and discovered the Salk Institute. I still remember it as a “wow” moment. Although the architecture first appeared brutal, it appealed very much to our personal aesthetic. It is so contemporary, so well sited and so beautifully thought through and functional.

When we considered moving to La Jolla, the Salk Institute and the opportunity to teach and help form a brand new university became deciding factors. However, it took one additional incident to sway our decision. It’s funny how small things do change the course of life.

When I was first offered the job at UC San Diego, I turned it down, with family, friends and career all on the East Coast. But for the next two days, we questioned our decision.

Returning home the second day, soaked from a major rainstorm, Joan read me a description of a contemporary home that was for sale. I said, “Let’s go see it tomorrow.” She said, “There’s only one problem, it’s in La Jolla.” And so here we are.

Q: Has the unexpected played out in other ways in your life?

A: Entering a business career provides another example. When we moved to San Diego, I didn’t really plan on going into business. However, I had co-authored a textbook on digital communications at MIT. As a result, I received many more requests for consulting from companies in California than I could handle.

I mentioned this to two faculty friends at UCLA and they suggested we should start a company to share the consulting. And that’s how Linkabit, my first company, began.

It began to grow, so I took a one-year leave from UC San Diego to get it organized, found the technology business great fun, and in 1972 became a dropout from academia. The digital communication theory that I had been teaching proved very useful in business, and Linkabit was a great success. I sold it in 1980 and remained (with it) until 1985.

Six persons who had worked with me at Linkabit suggested starting another company. Although we did not have any products in mind when starting, the unexpected occurred again and Qualcomm became another success driven by innovative products.

Union-Tribune staff writer Bradley J. Fikes contributed to this article.

How to Find More Tech Talent: Georgia Tech Disrupts the Market

Whether you’re at MasterCard, AirBnB, AT&T or most any start up across the country, if you are looking for technical people, you’ve likely got a problem.  You cannot find enough qualified employees.

By all counts, there is a current and projected shortage of Bachelors and Masters degree holders in high-growth technical areas, such as software development, mobile application development and data science. With educational institutions able to support only a finite number of students in traditional brick-and-mortar degree programs, online education has ballooned to over $100B 1. However, tuition for an MS degree at a mainstream online university, such as University of Phoenix, is over $30,000 and at a top-brand university, such as Carnegie-Mellon, is $43,000 and up. This is not a recipe for filling the skills gap anytime soon.

As with nearly every aspect of modern life, though, disruption is underway – in this case, driven by Georgia Tech in partnership with AT&T and Udacity.

Educating Students Who Could Not Otherwise Earn the Degree

“There is currently a revolution in higher education. And we don’t want only to be part of it – we want to lead it,” says Zvi Galil, George P. Imlay Jr. Dean of Computing at Georgia Tech and Marconi Society Board Member.

That’s why Georgia Tech is the country’s first top-tier university to offer an online masters degree in computer science (OMSCS) that is equivalent in every way to an in-person degree – and that comes at a price tag reflecting the cost savings of online education. At $7,000, Georgia Tech is making its world-class MS much more accessible for qualified candidates around the world.

Since the degree is affordable and uses technology to make it available to anyone with a broadband connection, it gives nearly all of the applicants the opportunity to obtain a degree that they would not otherwise be able to get. An older cohort than the in-person student body, 75% of the OMSCS students are employed full-time and 94% work while enrolled. Though the students come from 100 countries, the 78% domestic / 22% international enrollment is the virtual reverse of Georgia Tech’s in-person campus population and reflects the appeal of the program to people who want to remain where they are while earning their degree.

The Economics of Partnership

It takes a village – and a lot of resources – to create an online experience that equals the quality of a traditional in-person education.

Georgia Tech partnered with Udacity to provide expertise in the art and business of online education. Serving over 4M students, Udacity is the brain trust for best practices in online learning and provided Georgia Tech with expertise in creating compelling content and student experiences.

Creating a great online course is like producing a movie – it requires content built for the medium, along with takes and re-takes to make it perfect. It costs $200,000 – $300,000 to develop an engaging and effective online course. In addition, there are the typical costs associated with a degree-program course, including instructor time and infrastructure.

Galil was determined that the OMSCS was the right strategic direction for Georgia Tech, but lacked the large endowment of a private university. He simultaneously moved the project through the approval process, including a Board of Regent’s approval, while seeking outside funding to support course development. Through relationships with AT&T and Udacity, he obtained funding to help Georgia Tech create the online courses much more quickly than they would have been able to otherwise.

What’s in it for AT&T? The company hires over 30,000 employees each year, including many from technical disciplines. 300 of its employees are in the program.  By supporting OMSCS, AT&T is increasing the supply of technical talent by making a world-class degree available to qualified applicants with a broadband connection.

Increasing the Supply of Technical Talent in the US

Today’s OMSCS program boasts 111 graduates and 4000 students that have over 700 advanced degrees between them. They work for companies like AT&T, Microsoft, IBM and Google.

The most amazing result of all: the US alone will have 7% more MS degree holders in Computer Science each year as a result of the OMSCS program2. With students in 100 countries, the program will help increase the world’s population of high caliber technical employees.

Where will the online revolution go from here? Only time will tell, but Galil is already thinking ahead to its applications for undergraduates. In Spring 2017, Georgia Tech will pilot an online-only section of its popular “Intro to Computing” course for undergrads. Though the course will start small—enrollment is being limited to 50 students—it has the potential for big impact.

“What if we could leverage online education to shorten the time students spend on campus as undergraduates?” Galil said. “According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, computing is the only professional category for which the number of jobs available each year is more than the number of graduates—and by a factor of two. In higher education, it’s our duty and mission to find innovative ways to address this national need. At Georgia Tech, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”

Learn more about Georgia Tech’s OMSCS degree:

Usable Knowledge: The Digital Bridge: A Model for How Online Education Can Increase Access to Higher Education

New York Times: An Online Education Breakthrough? A Master’s Degree for a Mere $7000

EduTech, Brisbane, Australia:  Improving Education Through Accessibility and Affordability

Harvard Computer Science Colloquium: Online Master of Science in Computer Science, featuring Dr. Zvi Galil


  1. Forbes
  2. Usable Knowledge

Vinton G. Cerf to Lead Marconi Society


Internet pioneer to carry on Marconi’s legacy by recognizing major technology contributors, continuing support for promising researchers and promoting sustainable technology

The Marconi Society, dedicated to furthering scientific achievements in communications and related technologies, announced today that Internet pioneer Vinton G. Cerf has been elected Chairman of the Marconi Society. Mr. Cerf, who previously served as vice chairman of the Marconi Society, succeeds Sir David Payne, a leading optical fiber researcher and inventor who led the Marconi Society for six years and who will remain on the Board.

“I’m honored to be chosen to lead the Marconi Society and support its important work,” says Cerf. “Radio is pervasive. It’s everywhere in our society now. We carry mobiles and we can foresee many devices that are going to be communicating by radio, including self-driving cars. The technology is still evolving. More and more ways are being discovered to use radio and other communication technologies every day. Radio has proven to be a pervasive technology and that is why it is important to recognize the inventor, as well as the people who followed him.”

In addition to the annual Marconi Prize, widely considered a pinnacle achievement in telecommunications and the Internet, the Marconi Society recognizes exceptional young researchers with the Paul Baran Young Scholar Award.

“I’m a big enthusiast of the Young Scholar program, since that’s where all the new developments come from,” Mr. Cerf says. “This program often accelerates people in their careers. It’s such a joy to meet these young people and encourage them in their work.”

Cerf also cites the importance of the Young Scholars’ Celestini Project, which is focused on developing countries in Africa, and provides support and mentoring to local students who create new applications of technology to benefit their communities. “Probably the most important thing we can do is to bring new technology to bear and have the people who are using it be the same people who are developing it,” Mr. Cerf says. “The whole idea is to create a sustainable wave of technology and evolution.”

Mr. Cerf is widely known as one of the “Fathers of the Internet,” and is credited with designing TCP/IP protocols and the basic architecture of the Internet together with Robert Kahn. He currently serves as Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google. He received the Marconi Prize in 1998, and has been honored with the U.S. National Medal of Technology and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor awarded by the United States to its citizens.

Connecting Everything by Redefining the Atom

There was a time when the laws of physics bound the possible. After all, the physical world, from living tissue to digital networks that carry our information and communications around the world, is based on atoms that define how these things behave. There are upper limits on performance, actions and reactions. But what if we could essentially redefine the atom to create next generation devices that are highly tuned to behave in very specific ways? Doing this could have groundbreaking impacts in security, communications, health and safety.

It’s happening right now.

Nanostructures are the New Atoms

It all starts with metamaterials (from the Greek word µετά meta, meaning “beyond”), which are materials engineered to have properties not found in nature. We make metamaterials by assembling multiple elements made from composite materials such as metals or dielectrics (materials that are poor conductors of electricity, but efficient supporters of electrostatic fields). They are usually arranged in repeating patterns, at scales that are smaller than the wavelengths of the phenomena they influence.

While natural materials have properties based on their elements (for example, metal-based materials are strong, but heavy and have high loss), metamaterials have properties based on these repeating patterns, and their exact shape, geometry, size, orientation and arrangement gives them their smart properties capable of manipulating electromagnetic waves. 1 By arranging metamaterials in specific ways at infrared and visible wavelengths, scientists create nanostructures, which are essentially sequences of man-made atoms.

That’s what Marconi Society Paul Baran Young Scholar Salvatore Campione is working on as a Senior Member of Technical Staff at Sandia National Laboratories. This work recently led the IEEE Eta Kappa Nu Honor Society to name him as the Society’s 2016 Outstanding Young Professional.

From Communications to Healthcare

Nanostructures are used to create devices that can be engineered and designed to solve a variety of problems. Here are just a few:

In Communications

As our world becomes more connected and the number of people and devices on the network grows exponentially, moving information quickly, cheaply and effectively becomes more important than ever. While an ever-increasing portion of our networks is moving to the optical communication wavelength of 1.55 micrometers, thanks to optical fibers, there are many devices, such as filters, modulators and multiplexers that do not offer the speed and performance we need. Optoelectronics is a branch of research working to optimize these bottleneck devices for fiber speeds and performance.

Researchers in optoelectronics, such as Salvatore Campione, are investigating metamaterials to be used as filters and modulators to enhance network’s performance across all devices. While metamaterials and nanostructures allow researchers to create any type of filter, once these filters are tested and refined, they are fabricated and become static parts of the network. They can work only at specific wavelengths and specific performance levels. Campione and others are working to make these filters more flexible by designing active devices, which use external stimuli to tell the device to reconfigure itself, e.g. when it is time to change frequency of operation. Today’s communication network consists of many devices, each performing its own separate function. Metamaterials may allow us to design devices with multiple functionalities. By using such devices, networks will be faster, cheaper, more efficient and use less space – and be more responsive to each user’s individual needs.

In Healthcare

One of the human body’s defense mechanisms is to destroy foreign objects that invade it. Nanostructures are so small that they can be put into the body without the body trying to destroy them. This ability to exist within the human body, to be designed for specific purposes and to be controlled by scientists makes nanostructures ideal for fighting cancer. Scientists can put a specially designed nanostructure into the body, move it to the location of the carcinogenic cells and illuminate those cells with electromagnetic radiation.  The nanostructures then absorb the energy, heat up and destroy the bad cells. This allows an incredibly targeted approach to isolating and killing deadly cells in the body.

In the Environment

There are many environments in which toxins and chemicals need to be kept at or below specific levels to keep employees in those environments safe. From oil fields, where certain chemicals need to be kept at low enough concentrations to prevent ignition, to semiconductor manufacturing, where dust inhalation can be fatal, nanosensing devices have the potential to provide a much more granular level of accuracy than current sensing technologies. Each of the elements in these environments might need to be sensed at different frequencies and sensors can be built to detect specific molecules. Since some of these toxins can be dangerous even in very limited quantities, extremely high levels of sensitivity are required to detect and react to environmental hazards.

This intersection of physics, engineering and chemistry helps us create solutions that we would not have thought possible even twenty years ago. With applications ranging from seismic protection to cloaking devices that make aircraft invisible to radar, these new metamaterial-based building blocks will be a key part of our future.

1. Wikipedia: