College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Sutardja revisits, reminisces

To learn about Sehat Sutardja is to learn about his journey.

That he would tell of it while sitting next to his parents, during a visit to an early and important place along his path, is fitting. Sutardja is a man of fundamental motivations, family being among them. He was at Iowa State University to accept the prestigious Distinguished Alumni award, but this was more than just a stopover—just as his time as an undergraduate student was more than just passing through. The sincere energy that animated his words hinted of a deeper connection that had been restored. Retracing one’s steps often inspires thoughtful reflection. In this case, it was a visionary’s reflection upon a life, a career, and a quest to spread knowledge and improve the world.

Journey of a career

How many stories of career success begin with this premise: a kid with a passion hones life into a single-minded focus and rises to become a pioneering leader. Yet when Sutardja relates just such a plotline as it applied to him, there is no inkling of cliché in his demeanor. He is back there, in Jakarta, Indonesia, as a 12-year-old boy, studying electronics and building circuit boards late into the night. An “accident,” he calls it, the way he initiated his life’s course, perhaps as a concession to those who do not find their calling so easily. By age 13, he was a certified radio repair technician.

Sehat Sutardja visited Iowa State in April 2010. During a tour of electrical and computer engineering, he was accompanied by then-department chair Arun Somani.

“I could think only about electronics,” he says. “Everything else, I cleared out of my mind.”

Everything, including his parents’ wishes. “They wanted me to become a medical doctor,” he says, without specifying whether that was before or after he modified the ignition system of the family car to operate electronically. “They were very upset,” which he could now say with a smile that matched his mother’s at the retelling of the incident.

As he neared college age, Sutardja understood that the place to study electronics was the United States. There, the development of semiconductors and integrated circuits was well underway. He rolls through the names of companies as if they were boyhood idols: National Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, Fairchild Semiconductors. “At one time, in high school, I thought Raytheon was one of the greatest companies in the world.”

So by another accident, perhaps, Sutardja found himself at Iowa State University in 1983, where he chose to study electrical engineering because a few friends were attending.

“I really enjoyed studying here,” he says, praising many of his professors and describing one of them, James Nilsson, as “the greatest professor I ever met.”

Some of what they taught Sutardja was to think while trusting his instincts.

“I learned a lot of tricks—or what I call ‘intuitions’—from these professors,” he says. “I think it prepared me very well for when I went to graduate school in Berkeley. There were a lot of times in my early graduate classes that I said, ‘I already learned this stuff at Iowa State.’ ”

Focus combined with intuition and education—Sutardja followed his BS in electrical engineering from Iowa State with MS and PhD degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California at Berkeley—proved to be a formidable force that drove the young engineer to make a statement in his field.

“We started Marvell Technology Group to build things other people said were impossible,” he says. “We were just a bunch of engineers trying to prove to the world that we could do things that no one else could.”

Ultimately, they did. By coming up with new circuit techniques, the company solved the challenge of doing high-performance analog circuits in standard digital CMOS technology.

It would be the first of many breakthroughs as Sutardja and his group revolutionized data storage and high-performance, low-power chips.

Journey of a person

An early lesson about the power of technology has never been lost on Sutardja.

“I came from a poor family,” he says. “We had to struggle. But because I had access to technology, even though at the time it was pretty simple, I could help myself to improve my life.”

This deeply rooted realization in no small way explains the evolution of Sutardja from a successful man to a purposeful one. As the company expanded, so did his outlook.

“We started to realize there were other things in the world than making money,” he says. “We also needed to build products that could bridge the gap between the poor and the rich, the haves and the have-nots. Because a lot of this technology comes at a very high price, we’ve had a mission over the past five years to develop new technology to address cost.”

Marvell turned its focus to high-performance microprocessors, not only to facilitate the “always-on” lifestyle that is characterized by Internet-enabled phones and other mobile modes of connectivity, but also to make the technology more affordable—and therefore more accessible—for all.

“I believe we are at the right time in history,” Sutardja says. “The technology is so advanced that a lot of the things we need to do can be built in a single chip, or perhaps two chips. That makes it really inexpensive.”

The next step, Sutardja says, is not so much developing the technology itself but figuring out how to disseminate the technology into the market. As he puts it, “To promote this technology to the world.”

The journey forward

The motivation to make technology more accessible is idealistic, but the potential outcome, in Sutardja’s eyes, is entirely practical. The “accident” of his own introduction to electronics is one that he hopes to foster many times over.

“If I can provide technology to billions of people in the world,” he says, “then maybe accidentally I will enable one, or ten, or hundreds—hopefully, even more—to make a difference in the world by solving the most pressing problems that we face.”

This reflects an argument for diversity that is gaining traction in business and education today. The aggregation of multiple perspectives, goes the theory, is more powerful than an assembly of experts.

“We need someone to figure out a better use of our resources,” Sutardja says. “I cannot do that because my knowledge is semiconductors, circuits, and electronics. We all can benefit from the dissemination of knowledge around the world.”

When speaking of resources and sustainability, Sutardja quickly and forcefully turns to the topic of energy. He provides the key components, after all, to a vast electronics industry that consumes power, and lots of it. While it’s easy for the general public to focus on highly visible examples of power consumption—on the level of factories, for example—the ubiquitous presence of electronic devices escapes the same level of awareness. But those TVs, and stereos, and computers, and mobile devices—all of them use power, and if each of them used just a little less, the impact could be substantial.

“We need to solve this energy issue from the consumption point of view,” Sutardja says, “so this is an area in which we are driving very hard and investing in R&D.”

Marvell’s commitment to sustainability manifests itself in low-power chips, but the mantle taken up by Sutardja involves the widespread adoption of a technology that has been resisted by industry and government: power factor correction. Put simply, there’s a gap between the power that some devices require and what they actually use. The technology to correct for that gap is available but not widely used. Sutardja wants to change that fact.

“This technology has been around for 30 years or longer, but at that time it was very expensive,” Sutardja says. “We have calculated that if every electronic device in the world utilized power factor corrections, we could reduce the losses in the grid by 30 to 40 percent. That means a significant amount of power used today is wasted. We need to do something about this to solve the energy crisis in the world.”

As cost has been brought down as an obstacle, Sutardja says, the real issue today is education. That is, educating industry and government to adopt new standards.

“Change is hard,” Sutardja says, “but we need to make this a big issue and make people aware of it. Consider that there are 200 million new TVs each year. In 10 years, we’ll have 2 billion more TVs in the world. And how many more stereo systems and computers? The world will be filled with electronic devices that waste energy.”

The focus of the young man consumed by electronics is still there. The drive to accomplish has not diminished. The desire to make a difference has not just emerged—it has taken on a sense of urgency. Much remains in the journey of Sehat Sutardja, and the world will be a better place for it.

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