The Berkeley Link by Gavin McCormick

Cal Faculty and alumni form important connections with Silicon Valley in research, business, and academics.

Larry Rowe's got a lot going on. Bustling about his sunny office, the Berkeley professor of computer science advises a student on thesis topics, fields two phone calls, consults his computer database, writes three notes to himself, tidies up his desk, and gives a second student job-hunting tips--all in 10 minutes.

Rowe has a soft, comforting voice, but he talks the way he moves around his office--in quick bursts. And such bursts of energy have powered more than just academic work. Like many faculty in the Computer Science Division of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, Rowe has been involved in the start-up of successful high tech companies. Rowe and Berkeley colleagues Michael Stonebraker and Eugene Wong turned research on a relational data model that simplifies access to large databases into Ingres Corporation. Their research, and that of others at Berkeley, has spawned some of the biggest players in Silicon Valley's vast software industry.

The "multi-tasking" of Rowe, Stonebraker, and colleagues in Computer Science has been behind the remarkable rise of their division. In the last decade, Berkeley's computer science program has developed into one of the nation's three best, according to the respected 1995 study by the National Research Council.

"This program has just skyrocketed since the 1970s," said Rowe. "All kinds of research project ideas have spun off into companies. And local firms compete to hire our undergraduates."

Housed in Soda Hall, the distinctive green tile building that opened in 1994, Computer Science has used its proximity to Silicon Valley to attract and retain faculty members, garner research funds, and recruit top students. Berkeley has challenged the former "Big Three" in the field-- Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Carnegie Mellon University--to create, along with Stanford, a new "Big Two." (See "Profile: Computer Science," p. 13.)

Computer Science at Berkeley is part of what AnnaLee Saxenian, associate professor of City and Regional Planning, calls Silicon Valley's "network system," in which companies compete intensely but the culture fosters an implicit collaboration. Sharing ideas, technology, and labor, the firms and universities create what Saxenian terms an economic "rain forest." And while Silicon Valley has helped seed the Computer Science Division's growth, it has also benefited from the remarkable number of Berkeley alumni who have helped it bloom into the world's most powerful high-tech region.

Roger Sippl, '77, is well placed to trace the development of both the Computer Science Division and Silicon Valley. Sippl, 41, is founder of Informix, a pioneering software company with an estimated worth of $4-5 billion. This Old Blue has since moved on to become chief executive officer of a new start-up, Visigenic Software Inc.

When Sippl got his bachelor's degree in the late '70s, the whole industry was poised for revolutionary change.

"Silicon Valley was composed then of the major semiconductor companies, like Intel, Motorola, and National Semiconductor," Sippl said. "There was no major software industry there--or anywhere in the world, really. And there was little connection with the local universities. But over the 19 years since, the software industry has become a major force in the world economy. And Berkeley has an intricate and overlapping set of connections with it."

Said Lotfi Zadeh, professor emeritus and associate department chair 1963-68, "Apart from Microsoft, the entire explosion of the software market--the Internet, the World Wide Web, multimedia, communications--is centered in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. And that success translates directly and indirectly to the universities, very definitely."

Another example of the University-industry link is the story of Bill Joy, MA'79, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, who continues to play a huge role in the software and computer network boom. As a graduate student here, Joy learned about UNIX when one of the co-authors of the Bell Lab's operating system, Ken Thompson, '65, MS'66, spent a year teaching here. After Thompson's departure, Joy became a principal designer of a local version of UNIX, called BSD for "Berkeley software distribution."

The Berkeley version of UNIX offered a technically superior basis for advanced developments, according to Michael Harrison, professor of computer science. When the Advanced Research Projects Agency [of the U.S. Department of Defense] saw how much better the system worked, he said, they put money into it, and Joy created enhancements to the original system. Virtual memory and networking were key Berkeley additions. And the resulting software was distributed widely by the University. Joy's networking design is one of the concepts underlying today's Internet. "That software is an example of technology from Berkeley changing the entire industry," said Harrison.

Harrison said he later helped convince Joy of the significance of the opportunity to join, at its inception, Sun Microsystems, now the world's leading company in computer workstations. (Sun's newest innovation is Java, a programming language that allows Internet sites to use sound and motion data--news footage, say--that personal computer users can download quickly. Among Java's creators, along with Joy, is Sun's chief technical officer, Eric Schmidt, PhD'82.)

The Berkeley links to high tech development are wide. "We should make a chart tracing the lineage of the database industries--a chart on a wall showing which companies have been spun from which," said Sippl. Much of the chart, he noted, could be inked in blue and gold. The breadth of Berkeley connections supports Saxenian's thesis that Berkeley, along with Stanford, has played a key role in Silicon Valley's success.

"Without local universities to create and spawn academic talent, you wouldn't have the kind of progress you see in the industry," says Sippl. "We're very lucky to have two universities in this area that are providing us with that kind of research and talent."

Gordon Moore, '50, founder and chair of Intel Corp., acknowledged Berkeley's role with his recent gift of $15 million to the campus's New Materials Initiative (Vol. 1, No. 1). Moore said Berkeley is "one of the world's best environments for discovery."

Rowe thinks one element of Berkeley's success is its "bottom-up" approach to faculty development. "We hire smart junior faculty and encourage them to go off and do their own research," he said. "We don't hire senior faculty very often. Other schools won't hire a person unless he's world famous."

As a result, the division has many entrepreneurs among its faculty generating support for research. Rowe, for example, is heading up a new interdisciplinary effort called the Berkeley Multimedia Research Center (BMRC) that is deploying new computing and networking infrastructure and establishing new laboratories and classrooms on campus to support use of digital media--audio, video, images, animation--in scholarship and education. BMRC is the centerpiece of "the campaign for the multimedia information initiative," which seeks $10 million as part of the campus's upcoming New Century Campaign.

In his Soda Hall office, Rowe takes another phone call. Before signing off he says, "Oh, you bet. I'm having a lot of fun." In Berkeley's burgeoning computer science program, he's not the only one.

Gavin McCormick graduated in May from Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.