Martha Dennis Interview – March 28, 2014
CARUSO: Today is the 28th of March, 2014. This is David Caruso, and I’m with Martha Dennis in La Jolla, California. This is an interview as part of the San Diego Technology Archive Oral History Project. Thank you again for agreeing to spend some time with me to talk about the history of this very fascinating area. As I mentioned to you, what I wanted to start with is just get some background information about where you grew up, your education, your interest in either coming to San Diego or staying in San Diego to work, just sort of the early years that will help give us a better sense of where you wanted to go with stuff in life.
DENNIS: I was born and brought up in New Haven, Connecticut. My father was a faculty member at Yale, so I had a very academic community orientation. I went to college in the days when girls went to girls’ schools and boys went to boys’ schools. I went to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, following in my mother’s footsteps, and I was a math major at Smith College. This was the days of early and large computing facilities. In Western Massachusetts at the time, there was one computer. It was situated at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. They took all the math majors from Smith on a field trip to visit the computer one day. We were allowed to go into the room only one at a time because the computer was built with vacuum tubes and more than one visitor would have overheated the room. Obviously, things have changed quite a bit. I had summer jobs during my college career that introduced me to more advanced computers. I was very lucky to have these early opportunities. After graduation I went to work as a computer person for an astrophysicist at MIT. After a couple of years I found the field so fascinating that I decided to pursue a doctorate in computer science. At the time, I was not willing to leave Cambridge, which is where I had situated myself. In fact, the only graduate program in Cambridge covering computer science at the time was at Harvard University. It was not yet identified as computer science but was included in a collection of disciplines in the department of Applied Mathematics. I entered this program at Harvard and four years later received a doctorate.
CARUSO: What I’m curious about is how many – in terms of the graduate program, roughly how many students were in applied math? Two questions. Was applied math only computer science?
CARUSO: So how many graduate students in applied math were really there for computer science?
DENNIS: I would say the majority were computer science, even at that time.
CARUSO: And the gender breakdown. Was it relatively evenly split?
DENNIS: We started with three female students and about ten male students. By the time I got my doctorate, one of the other two female students had dropped out for a year; she eventually came back and finished the program. Another joined the program but left after a couple of years. The third one got married, left and never finished. There was one female professor on the faculty who did not get tenure – apparently this was pretty typical at Harvard for female faculty.
CARUSO: Well it’s kind of still typical.
DENNIS: She was really brilliant. She had been the first woman to get a doctorate in the department. I was the second.
CARUSO: So what did you want to do with your doctorate? I mean you came from an academic family. Your father was at Yale. Were you thinking, “I want to go and be an academic as well and do research and live in that sort of academic institution”? Did you want to do something else with your degree?
DENNIS: I am by nature an engineer, and so rather than wanting to teach, I wanted to build things. At the beginning of my time as a graduate student attitudes were changing about the relationship between industry and academia. People in my field didn’t have to be “pure” academics and stay divorced from industry as they had in the past. More and more people had their feet in both worlds, both working in industry and teaching at the same time. In fact, the computer industry was advancing so quickly that the only way for the academic world to keep current was to include faculty who actively worked in industry. At the time our program included teaching faculty from IBM and we interacted with the IBM research labs in Yorktown Heights in New York where the personal computer was being developed. We also had faculty from a local company called Bolt, Beranek and Newman, or BBN. Have you heard of them?
DENNIS: They developed the equipment that allowed the implementation of the Internet and were at the forefront of the networking that defines the Internet today. In a rapidly advancing engineering discipline like computer science what was being developed in industry had to be shared with the academic world in order to make academic programs relevant. At the time the Harvard program also partnered with various federally funded research organizations like Lincoln Labs, DARPA and MITRE, sharing faculty and cooperating on research. Actually DARPA funded my doctoral research - this was pretty typical. One thing that is very different from today is that the big push for tech transfer from academia didn’t exist then. There was a lot of collaboration between academia, industry and government research organizations. My father, who was an academic, always spoke about how in his day one’s reputation as an academic was tainted if one collaborated with industry, but by the mid- to late-sixties this attitude was irreversibly changing.
CARUSO: Just so I have an appropriate sense, what rough time period is this?
DENNIS: I was in graduate school between 1966 and 1971.
CARUSO: So you finish up your degree. You’re an engineer by nature, not going into an academic life. Where did you want to go and what did you want to do?
DENNIS: I wanted to either be part of a research institution or work in an engineering-oriented company where meaty problems got solved and imaginative products were produced. I wanted to be part of the problem solving activities. At the time I wasn’t so interested in the business side of industry which seemed very inaccessible to me and about which I knew nothing. But that began to change as my years in industry accumulated.
CARUSO: What were some of the places that you were looking at for a position that were of interest to you?
DENNIS: Well, just when I finished graduate school, which was 1971, there was a major downturn in the technology industries. I remember an article in the New York Times magazine section just about that time entitled “Down and Out on Route 128,” and that about sums it up. Just when I was ready to burn up the world with my brand new doctorate in hand, engineering work availability declined. It wasn’t pretty. I was offered a position to go into academia – at the time universities were desperate for people who could teach computer science. I knew I didn’t want to do it, but I went to the interview on a Monday where they handed me a stack of books for the three courses they wanted me to teach starting that Wednesday. I went home and mulled over taking a teaching job, wrung my hands, stared at the stack of books and finally made a firm decision. On Tuesday, I brought the books back and that was that. I really have had very little interest in teaching.
CARUSO: One quick question – you were in applied math because there was no computer science department. At the end of your degree, were they looking to form an official department? Where were institutions generally?
DENNIS: This is the story I’ve heard, I don’t know if it’s true. The building on Oxford Street in Cambridge in which my classes had been given, Aiken Computation Lab, which proudly displayed a very early mechanical computing machine in its lobby, was replaced by another building funded with a gift to Harvard from by Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. The name of the new building is the Max Dworkin Building apparent named after each of the donors’ mothers’ maiden names. Once that building was erected, the department was renamed “Computer Science”
CARUSO: So not interested in the academic position offer. Where else were you looking for positions?
DENNIS: So we had moved to San Diego in 1970 where my husband took his first position as a professor at UCSD. The tech industry hadn’t really developed. The only alternative to academia for me seemed to be defense work, which was readily available here due to the presence of the Navy and, of course, many San Diego government contracting firms. I had written my doctoral thesis in the computer graphics area. In fact, my first thesis advisor was Ivan Sutherland, who won the Kyoto prize a couple of years ago. He is known as the “father of computer graphics”. He left Harvard when I was less than a year into my thesis work and moved to Utah where he became a professor as well as opening up the very first graphics terminal company called Evans and Sutherland. At the time his work was truly groundbreaking. I finished my thesis at Harvard in computer graphics even though he had left and so when I went to look for a job, it was in computer graphics. There was hardly anything available in San Diego. There was little going on at UCSD. I finally found a job working for a government contractor, Computer Sciences Corporation, doing work for the navy at a big navy research lab in San Diego out on Point Loma. They needed somebody to do some rudimentary computer graphics work. Perfect for me.
CARUSO: How large of a group of people were working on that, or were you the sole person?
DENNIS: I was working alone – someone trained in computer graphics was a pretty rare entity at that point in time. However, I wasn’t very satisfied with my job because my bosses kept telling me I was working too fast. They explained that for the amount of work I was doing they could have had four contractors on the job – but with only me they couldn’t collect overhead (i.e. their profit) for more than one contractor. After two uncomfortable years I decided I didn’t really belong there. Eventually, I found a job at a commercial company that was doing computer graphics and I found the work very exciting again. The company was Systems, Science, and Software, Inc. or “S-Cubed” for short in Sorrento Valley. I joined a group that was building CAD/CAM systems.
CARUSO: I’ve heard of S-Cubed.
DENNIS: S-Cubed had acquired a CAD/CAM system company. A CAD system (CAD stands for “computer-aided design”) is a computer-based tool that enables people to design the products that come out of 3-D printers today. CAM (which stands for “computer-aided machining”) is similar and is used to generate instructions for factory machines to follow. But, this was in the early days of CAD/CAM when large computers were required to run these design systems and there were no 3-D printers. I was hired to do the computer graphics part of the system but ended up developing a more sophisticated product than S-Cubed had originally bought. I worked on the CAD/CAM product for four years moving to Computervision when the product line was acquired by this Massachusetts firm. Eventually it was clear that that Computervision wanted to close the San Diego office, a story that happens too often when San Diego companies or product lines are acquired by out-of-town entities. And I wasn’t about to leave San Diego because I was happily married (and still am) to a man who has been a professor at UCSD since 1970. He was the reason I moved to San Diego from Cambridge.
CARUSO: Please continue with your background story.
DENNIS: The next step in the saga of my early technical career had roots in 1970. When I first came to San Diego, I had six more months of work left to write up my thesis. I met a nice guy named Irwin Jacobs at a political meeting. He was a professor at UCSD at the time and in 1969 he had started a small consulting company called Linkabit but he hadn’t left the university yet. When I met him, he asked me what I was doing and when I told him I was writing my thesis he asked if I would like an office at UCSD so I could be with other students in an academic environment. I was thrilled because I had been sitting at my dining room table, writing my thesis, and it sure was lonely. Writing a thesis is a pretty lonely activity anyway as anyone who has done so will attest. So I took him up on his generous offer, was given a graduate student cubicle at UCSD and got to know some of his students. Shortly after that Irwin left the university. But it’s probably best if you talk to Irwin and hear from him directly about why he decided to leave academia.
CARUSO: I haven’t talked to Irwin yet.
DENNIS: One of the issues for him at UCSD was that there was no proper Engineering Department at the time and no Computer Science. There was a lot of politics that Irwin was trying to work through to create an Engineering Department but he wasn’t able to establish one at the time. Today, in contrast, UCSD has the largest, most prominent Engineering Department in all of the University of California. And that in part was the result of a huge gift Irwin and his wife eventually gave to UCSD to fund the then renamed Jacobs School of Engineering. So when I decided to part ways with Computervision in 1976, I went to Irwin to talk about working with him at Linkabit which was blossoming rapidly. I assume you’ve heard of Linkabit
DENNIS: At first, Irwin didn’t think he needed software people. But I think he realized times were changing and technology was rapidly being implemented more and more in software or firmware rather than hardware. He also thought software was something you just do in an ad hoc way in a lab, as you’re developing hardware. Eventually, he decided he would take a chance on hiring a software person and he hired me. From an engineering viewpoint, what I found at Linkabit was that it was probably the most exciting industrial environment anyone could dream of, and especially in San Diego. Why? First of all, Irwin hired excellent people. We kept recruiting at MIT since at the time UCSD didn’t produce a lot of engineers. I would take three or four recruiting trips a year to MIT. I became very familiar with Building 12 at MIT where the recruiting offices are located. We really had a hard court press on to bring people out to San Diego to serve in this burgeoning tech industry.
CARUSO: So San Diego wasn’t on their radar?
CARUSO: Where were they thinking? I’m assuming Silicon Valley.
DENNIS: Professionally things were richer and more exciting on the east coast; although the weather differential between San Diego and Cambridge was a strong selling point for us. The people we hired were the type that put their work first. We worked hard at getting on their radar for consideration. We gave lectures. We had information sessions. We did all kinds of things. We had the help of their career office, and Irwin had come from MIT so they listened to him. Eventually we built a critical mass of people from MIT. We recruited heavily at a few other places as well: Berkeley, Stanford, Illinois (for strong RF people), etc. Overall we were pretty good at getting talent. I joined Linkabit as employee number 161. That was in 1976 when the company was seven years old. And it grew to be about 1,100 employees. Another thing that made Linkabit a wonderful environment for engineers was the variety and quality of the projects we worked on. Often we suggested to customers what they might be interested in building next rather than waiting for them to tell us. As a company we were a go-to place for communications projects that were technologically on the cutting edge, specifically, in satellite communications. Cellular existed, but it was not on our radar for most of Linkabit’s existence. We had a lot of defense customers, but we made a push to get into commercial work. One of our products was the first programmable satellite modem. Since it was programmable, it could work in multiple modes – a first for satellite modems. We did the first time division multiple access (TDMA) satellite communications systems. What that meant was that multiple sources could share a satellite link. That really expanded the capability of satellite communications. Although we started out doing government work, we were really interested in expanding into the commercial sector. We applied some of the technology we developed under government contracts to the commercial space by building systems of smaller, more portable satellite dishes that we easier to install and therefore more suitable for commercial applications. They no longer required tons of concrete and giant dishes that had been necessary for reliable satellite communications earlier on. This was possible because of technological advances in signal processing, information processing and coding. This was based, in part, on the work of Andy Viterbi, one of the three co-founders of Linkabit, who is one of the world’s foremost experts in error correction coding. We built commercial satellite communication systems based on this advance to smaller satellite dishes. Our very first customer was Schlumberger, the oil exploration company; they would go to out to remote locations that were potential oil wells and take samples to determine if they should drill at those spots. The samples they took were in the form of a lot of data that needed to be brought back to large computers located in Denver for processing. At the remote sites they would traditionally record the data on magnetic tape, “schlep” the magnetic tapes back to the computers in Denver, and then decide based on the processing results whether or not to go back out to the remote sites to drill. The small dish satellite communications system we developed enabled them instead to send the data via satellite to Denver directly from the remote sites, have the data processed, and decide remotely whether it was worth staying at the remote sites to drill. In addition, we had the very first satellite phone communication on this system alongside the data transmission. Needless to say, this first satellite phone system which used a very low data rate and thus had very poor voice quality. A bonus was also that the guys who were working out in the field got to talk to their families at home – a new benefit. Our second customer for these small dish satellite communications systems was a guy named Sam Walton. He started a little company named Walmart. He was interested in our product because it enabled him to do what they now call “just in time inventory”. When a Walmart customer purchased a box of Tide at the cash register, the data about this transaction would go over the satellite link back to the warehouse in Bentonville, Arkansas, where the next Walmart delivery truck was being loaded up at the warehouse. As a result of the satellite data transfer the right stuff would be loaded onto the truck immediately for restocking the store where the purchase had been made. So using this system gave Sam a huge competitive advantage - the rest is history.
CARUSO: One thing I’m curious about: you mentioned that you were recruiting individuals for the company. I’m guessing, though, not everyone who got there stayed there permanently. People might have gone on to other positions. So I’m curious to know whether or not there were other viable companies in the San Diego area, or were people leaving completely and going somewhere else in the United States?
DENNIS: “No” and “No” to both those questions. Linkabit was an “engineer’s engineering company”. It was really the best engineering experience in San Diego. And the only reason people left was to start their own companies, and this was rare. However, there were a few, and among those early “defectors”, if you want to call them that, were the three guys who started ViaSat. Have you heard of ViaSat?
DENNIS: ViaSat is the other large publicly held communications engineering company in San Diego besides Qualcomm. Their business is satellite communications; they remained in the satellite communications business whereas, in general, the other descendants of Linkabit did not. But, no, nobody left to go anyplace else. Why would they? Linkabit began to unravel in the early ‘80s when it was sold to M/A-COM. M/A-COM was a large microwave company from the east coast. I don’t think Irwin had anticipated what happens when one sells a company. Linkabit’s first large commercial project was for a Satellite Business Systems, a large east coast consortium of IBM, Aetna and Comsat Labs; the project was to combine multiple satellite downlinks to produce a single, much higher data rate satellite channel than had been possible previously. Linkabit also developed Videocipher, a system which scrambled a video stream and encrypted the associated audio for secure national satellite distribution of programming to cable headends (the location in a city from which all the cables run). This system was created to prevent theft of TV programming distributed over satellite. The resultant system became the national standard. In summary, Linkabit had developed three major product lines: Videocipher, commercial satellite communications systems, and communications systems for the government. After Linkabit was sold to M/A-COM there was a bit of a culture clash – not at all unusual. Linkabit, by its nature was very expansive, experimental, willing to take some risks and willing to make investments in new technology. M/A-COM was much more conservative. So the acquisition was the beginning of the end of the original Linkabit. One evening in the beginning of April, 1985, my husband and I went to my office after dinner to copy our tax return (in those days, people didn’t have copy machines at home). I was running back and forth to the copy machine as he was sorting papers. As I went down the hall I heard a knock on the outside door. Standing there were Irwin and Joan Jacobs, so I let them in. After greeting them, I went about my business – it wasn’t unusual in the early days at Linkabit to see Irwin and Joan come back to the office after dinner. They went upstairs where his office was. About an hour later, I was again running back and forth to the copy machine, I met them coming down the stairs. Irwin was holding a box, so I held the door open for them. I then asked, “What’s the box for?” He said, “I’m quitting. You can be the first to read the e-mail that I just wrote to everyone.” Eventually, without his leadership the whole place unraveled. And ultimately M/A-COM separated it into three pieces. The Videocipher group was sold to General Instrument, the commercial satellite communications system group was combined with a M/A-COM acquisition on the east coast, and the government systems group was sold to Titan which was eventually sold to L3.
CARUSO: So a lot of people like to think of the computer sector as one ginormous thing. In 1980, I think the personal computer was the Time person of the year around that time. I’m just wondering if the personal computer revolution, at least in the early ‘80s, had any impact on what Linkabit wanted to do or where it was going, or were you just dealing with completely different things?
DENNIS: We were really focused on satellite communications. PCs became a tool for us, as was e-mail and a lot of other things that everybody uses now. These conveniences were new then. Did we ever put them into products at Linkabit? No. It was too early. The company computing infrastructure ran on large computers built by the Digital Equipment Corporation. You might remember – these computers were housed in big computer rooms with lots of cooling. However, early on at Linkabit we did design and build our own special computers that were the basis of our satellite modem products. There was nothing off the shelf in those days. Eventually, we did use Intel components (8086’s) in our products; these components ultimately became the basis of PCs (think “Intel inside”). Do you know what and 8086 is?
DENNIS: Phew! In the early ‘80s, we were worked with two kinds of processors. One type was a digital signal processor which is optimally designed to do those operations necessary for extracting a signal from radio transmissions. And the other type was a control processor used to perform all the logic we built into a system. In those days Texas Instrument made a lot of digital signal processing processors on chips and Intel make the chips we used as control processors.
CARUSO: Now I also know in the early ‘80s, there begins a bigger influx of biotech companies, biotech startups. I can imagine that maybe not the same types of tools that Linkabit was constructing, but some of the work that they’re doing involves information systems and things along those lines. I was wondering if there was any sort of interaction, either formal or informal, interaction among individuals in the biotechs.
DENNIS: In those days?
DENNIS: Not really, because informatics and the DNA sequencing and the use of computation in biotech is very recent. What I have been describing was 35 years ago. But things have evolved and biotech has become a huge arena for computational tools. My husband is a professor at the UCSD medical school. He does research in lipids and is very much in the biotech world. He had a friend who was running a biotech company in the ‘90’s who called me up and asked me to come over and talk. They were trying to figure out what they had to do to apply software to drug discovery matrices. He called and ask me to “come for an hour and tell us what do we need to do, what kind of person do we need to hire to add software to our process.” During that period most of the biotech efforts were focused on drug development in San Diego. There wasn’t much in common with the electronics industry. Today it’s totally different.
CARUSO: I was just curious to know if sometimes the way that industries grow is by bringing in people who you wouldn’t normally expect to see there to bring in different perspectives. I was wondering if, in the overall San Diego community, if there was any interaction among these individuals. Or were they really stuck inside their own company? I am curious if any of that was going on.
DENNIS: I wouldn’t say stuck inside, but they didn’t see it as an opportunity at that time. It’s a different story now.
CARUSO: So Jacobs shows you his resignation e-mail. What was your response to that?
DENNIS: Shock. But I think we all knew it was inevitable. There was a lesson there, and that is: when you sell your company, you sell your company. I left Linkabit two years later with four other people to start a new company. Once Irwin resigned that’s when people began peeling off. The “Linkabit chart” shows that well.
CARUSO: Rough timeframe.
DENNIS: It happened in the next couple of years. First Andy Viterbi left, and then other senior people began leaving.
CARUSO: What is it that made you want to start your own company? I guess there wasn’t still a whole lot available in the San Diego area for you to switch to a different company.
DENNIS: We came to a point in our careers at which we had a lot of good experience so we thought, “We can start our own company.” There were five of us. We had worked together in at Linkabit and we really didn’t know what we were going to produce or work on. Those were the days when if you knew a venture capitalist who trusted you, you didn’t even have to have a product in mind – just a vague notion. Obviously, for us we were going to be working in the communications field. The name of our company was Pacific Communication Science, Inc., or PCSI. I happened to know a venture capitalist whose wife I had worked with. She and I were the two most senior women at Linkabit. The venture people knew of our reputations at Linkabit through her. In forming our new company we had put together a team that included a variety of disciplines – so we were fundable. We were thinking that we were forming another little Linkabit. One of the issues for us – and I would say this is true in general for the tech industry in San Diego – is that this wonderful tradition of being engineering oriented has a dark side - it often means you’re not marketing oriented enough. Coming from Linkabit were used to selling to the government and to other large companies. We were pretty good at that – but we were but totally lacking in knowledge of consumer marketing. This is still a weakness for San Diego tech companies. But it’s changing somewhat now that we’ve entered the Internet age. Our local tech companies had characteristically small marketing departments and very large engineering departments. We pretty much flunked at selling except for B-to-B or B-to-G(overnment). This derived directly from our “growing up” in the Linkabit culture. And to some extent, Qualcomm has the same tilt. That’s our local tech culture. Why? Because it all came from Linkabit. But that’s just my opinion - I don’t know if Irwin would agree. So, at PCSI we started by taking whatever came our way while we frenetically chased lots of opportunities. Our first project was a bit unusual: a meteor burst communications system for trucks. You may ask, “What is that?” It’s a communications system that functions really well in August and really poorly in February because the meteor showers are not visible in February and they are abundant in August. It was a cheap way to get low data rate messages to trucks traveling across the country or traversing remote regions. It was a strange first project and it never went any place, but when a company is starting up, they take on whatever work they can find. Eventually, we were approached by IBM and McCaw Cellular. I don’t know if you remember McCaw. They were one of the first cellular companies to develop data to the phone. I know today that doesn’t sound too exciting, but, in those days, phones were analog. You couldn’t send data except for text messages. We built a system to send digital data using the bandwidth that was wasted between tearing down one call and setting up the next one on a cellular frequency. With our system a user could get data from the internet and have it displayed on his analog phone. So in 1993, we could request lists of movie listings, movie times and locations on our cell phones, along with sports scores, winning lottery tickets, news headlines. Very, very primitive, but the beginning of data to the phone. AT&T wireless liked our prototypes and put up a system to support this data-to-the-phone scheme. We worked with IBM and put a module into the IBM Think Pad that allowed you to call up real web pages. It took a while to call up a web page, but you could do it. But, simultaneously, digital phone technology was maturing and eventually this rendered our data-to-the-phone solution unnecessary. The other big development our company focused on was a microcellular system for very densely populated venues that allowed many people to talk on their cell phones simultaneously – something that had been a challenge previously. The system was called Personal Handy Phone and it was sold in Japan. The prime example of its use was in the Japan railway station in Tokyo. Have you ever been there?
DENNIS: It’s so crowded that you can just lift up your feet and the crowd will pack you in and transport you to wherever the crowd is going. Our customers wanted people to be able to use cell phones even in that super-crowded environment. The Personal Handy Phone (or PHP) standard is still used today in China. The chipsets we developed implementing PHP were designed into phones made by twelve different Japanese phone manufacturers.
CARUSO: In what general timeframe is this occurring?
DENNIS: That occurred between 1987 and 1997. In 1993 we sold PCSI to Cirrus Logic, a publicly held company headquartered in Northern California. Cirrus was really wonderful as a parent company; we had a very different experience from the M/A-COM Linkabit experience: they encouraged us to continue in our innovative activities and never got in our way. Cirrus made peripheral chips for desktop computer manufacturers which were their major market. They had acquired us because we made chips they wanted to sell. But in 1996 the desktop computer industry hit a wall and so did Cirrus Logic. That Christmas desktop sales were replaced by laptop sales and it devastated Cirrus. They had acquired several companies, PCSI included, and this downturn caused them to divest themselves of all these companies. So PCSI was sold us off in thirds. Eventually each of the PCSI segments disappeared and effectively PCSI was shut down. At that point I started another company.
CARUSO: You had mentioned that recruiting for Linkabit, you were going to MIT and other places?
DENNIS: And I continued doing so at PCSI. Then we discovered Harvey Mudd College, which I think is the best undergraduate technical education available in the country - better than MIT. We kept hiring these Harvey Mudd whiz kids. Because of their broad engineering training, their thinking and creativity didn’t stop at the edge of a discipline, but went on to other engineering disciplines. Harvey Mudd is a tiny school. It’s one of the Claremont Colleges in Claremont, California. We got so involved with them that eventually, I joined their board and learned even more about their outstanding undergraduate program, and that’s why I’m such a fan of their educational process.
CARUSO: So there was still nothing coming out of UCSD that you would be interested in?
DENNIS: Yes, by that time, there was. UCSD was getting much stronger. Part of the Linkabit and PCSI cultures was that if somebody wanted to go back to school and get a master’s degree or even a doctorate, we’d support them as long as they maintained a certain grade point average. Ultimately UCSD opened the Center for Wireless Communications as the wireless industry grew in San Diego. Many new communications companies were starting up which created a growing need for more communications engineers. So UCSD responded by expanding its ability to train them. The chancellor at the time had great perception about where the future opportunities were for UCSD. His name was Dick Atkinson. Do you know who he is?
CARUSO: I’ve heard of him.
DENNIS: He really understood the importance of the engineering sciences and helped get a large gift from Irwin Jacobs resulting in the naming of the Jacobs School of Engineering. Dick is also amazingly entrepreneurial person. And he supported the creation of CONNECT, one of the first programs in existence founded to support entrepreneurship. You’ve probably heard about Bill Otterson, the man behind CONNECT. He started CONNECT at the UCSD Extension. His intent was that entrepreneurs should be connected to all the people they were going to need as they built their companies - what you might call the entrepreneurial infrastructure into which entrepreneurs must to connect. He had a huge number of networking events. He’d do things like he’d grab me by the back of the neck, take me up to somebody and say, “Martha, you have to meet this person because he is going to fund your company.” Then he’d say to the other guy, “George, you have to listen to Martha’s pitch because it’s really terrific and she needs funding.” At a certain point PCSI was having trouble recruiting people because everyone looked upon California as the land of high taxes - which it is. We went to a dinner party one Friday night at which the Ottersons were guests as we were. When I arrived at the party I must have looked like I’d been dragged through a mud pond. Bill said, “What’s wrong, Martha?” I said, “We can’t seem to recruit anybody.” We had had five offers out to people from Florida, and they all declined that afternoon because it was too expensive to live here. The very next Monday morning without hesitation Bill started another new CONNECT program called CONNECT HR at which he got everybody in the tech community together to talk about our local hiring problem and how to solve it.
CARUSO: What was his drive behind this?
DENNIS: He thought he was a dead man. He had been diagnosed with melanoma, and was told that he had only a few months to live. He took Interferon, which was a new drug at the time. And he stayed alive for 15 years after his diagnosis. His drive was to do good for the community. His salary was ridiculously low – he was doing it for the joy of changing the landscape for entrepreneurs.
CARUSO: Do you know what he wanted for the university from that? I mean he is coming out of UCSD. I can see the benefit to those in the community, but what was the -
DENNIS: Benefit to the university?
DENNIS: It wasn’t clear. I assume what UCSD wanted out of the CONNECT program was a magic path for tech transfer. But I always looked at CONNECT as partly fulfilling the university’s mission to serve the public. Bill was interested in connecting the academic side of the university with business talent in the community. One program he created showcased different technologies at the university by presenting advances in a field alongside related commercial advances. One thing became clear from these programs: in general professors at the university are professors – not businessmen. And tech transfer is most successfully accomplished when academics partner with business people to form companies. I want to mention one other thing that changed the landscape for entrepreneurship in San Diego. In the late 90’s a series of facilitated sessions organized by the San Diego EDC (Economic Development Corporation) was held and was attended by local tech CEO’s. The purpose was to discuss how San Diego could improve its climate to better support tech company growth. At one session, we discussed a common observation: “Not surprisingly, as a result of the fact that the local tech industries derived from the original Linkabit culture, we have an amazing set of engineering talent in this town. But the marketing and management people needed to complete the teams to make highly successful companies here are nowhere to be found.” What often happens in San Diego is that anybody who is talented enough to want to rise in marketing or management decides to pursue an MBA. But rather than go to San Diego State or USD to get that MBA, they would leave town to attend a more prestigious MBA program. They would go to Kellogg. They would go to Anderson. They would go to some name brand business school, and in general, wouldn’t come back to San Diego after getting a degree. So San Diego would lose this talent. As a result of this line of thinking one significant idea came out of all these sessions: what San Diego needed more than anything was a first rate business school. So a former VC named Bill Stensrud and I approached UCSD to ask if they might considered starting a school of management. It was Dick Atkinson, at that point the President of the statewide University of California, who agreed with us and committed to making it happen. So a new school of management was born on the UCSD campus. It wasn’t called the Rady School of Management until we got a wonderfully generous naming gift from Earnest Rady. And because of a very talented founding dean, Bob Sullivan, in ten years, it has become a nationally ranked first rate school - quite unbelievable.
CARUSO: Very short period of time.
DENNIS: Yes, that was the missing piece. Now we’re beginning to see the results in the community of having such a fine school of management. We’re seeing more and more Rady grads who have an advanced technical degree from some very competitive place and a Rady MBA on top of it. Eventually the presence of the Rady School of Management will make a huge difference in how well San Diego does in building strong new businesses here.
CARUSO: So I have one question, and then I’d like to return to I guess 1997 where – you mentioned the sort of the dynamism of Bill Otterson and his ability to literally bring people together with CONNECT.
CARUSO: I’m assuming that with his passing, things may have changed with CONNECT. I’m just wondering if from your perspective the organization is still functioning the same way that it used to, or if there have been changes in it that have had an effect on the community in some way.
DENNIS: Indeed it has changed. There have been three heads of CONNECT since Bill. The first head was asked by the university to change the focus so that it served tech transfer better – this was not particularly successful. The second head separated CONNECT from UCSD to create an independent organization which was not subject to university salary constraints and rules forbidding political activism. As I understand it, Mary Walshok, the head of UCSD Extension allowed the organization to be removed from UCSD because the university really wanted something that did more to support tech transfer. The lead third is interested in restoring the effectiveness of the original CONNECT; he hasn’t been in place very long, but he looks like a promising leader for the organization.
CARUSO: And the university might have wanted a different interest over time.
CARUSO: Especially if Bill is no longer the driving force, things are going to change under other people.
DENNIS: I always wonder how CONNECT would have evolved if Bill Otterson were still alive and in charge. How would he have responded to the community’s creating all these new resources for entrepreneurs? What would he make of today’s incubators and accelerators, and programs like Tech Stars, like Y-Combinator, etc.? These support organizations have gotten to be a little industry here. The sense of community that Bill created is special – and when I say community, I mean that compared to Silicon Valley where you don’t turn your back on somebody because they will stab you, here you don’t turn your back on somebody because they might deliver their oscilloscope for you to use without your even asking. There was a real sense of community that Bill built that I don’t know if anyone else could have.
CARUSO: So there are two things. Well, I’d like to return to 1997 and thereafter, the next company. [Break in recording.] All right, so after just a quick break, as I mentioned, I just want to pick up with hearing a bit more about 1997 and after, and also some of the activities that you’ve been engaged in recently the past five to ten years within the general tech community in the San Diego area.
DENNIS: In 1997, along with a guy I had worked with at Linkabit and PCSI, I started another company called WaveWare Communications. Our goal was to enable wireless sync for Palms. Remember the Palm handheld? At that time, the makers of Palms and other personal organizers were very emphatic that they would never combine their devices with phones. Oh, how they believed it! So what we decided to do was use the wireless data-to-the-phone standard that we had developed at PCSI as a wireless data link to enable the synchronization of So it’s a concept that has come alive again, but we were doing it with technology that was barely capable of supporting this functionality - now it’s a piece of cake. So we started WaveWare, and within seven or eight months, Palm and their co-founders, Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky, learned about us. Jeff was the guy who had developed the first touch screen technology, i.e. put your finger on a screen and use it to touch, draw or write. Palm had been sold a couple of times and ended being owned by 3Com. So Jeff came down to San Diego to visit our six-person company and offered to buy us – this was a dream come true for us because we hadn’t even finish the product yet. Our acquisition was going very smoothly and Jeff was a really great guy. But, within a couple of months Jeff and Donna, who were unhappy with 3Com’s ownership, decided to leave Palm to start a rival handheld company called Handspring. 3Com still insisted that they wanted to complete the acquisition of WaveWare. They continued negotiating with us for months. We later learned that in trying to cooperate with 3Com we did a number of things little companies shouldn’t do when they’re talking to big companies about being acquired. They said to us: “You’re not working with Microsoft, are you,” (because Microsoft was trying to develop a competing product). We said, “Absolutely not!” – a bad move on our part. They told us to stop raising money – that they would give us a bridge loan instead – which they later decided to “secure” with our intellectual property. And one day, they sent 13 people down to pick our brains telling us that the deal was going to close the next day. When the next day came, I received a phone call from them in which they told me they decided to call the deal off – just like that after all those months of negotiating. What became clear several months later is that they had been negotiating with a competitor of ours at the whole time they were negotiating with us. And they put us in a financial position that would enable them to get our intellectual property without paying for it. When this all became clear, I decided to sue them. Nobody in San Diego would take the case because the odds of a little San Diego company prevailing in a suit against a big Silicon Valley company were small. Eventually a friend of mine who was a crack shot litigator put me in touch with an incredible Silicon Valley plaintiff’s firm who specialized in David and Goliath cases just like ours. And in 14 months they helped us win the suit against Palm and 3Com. Unfortunately, that was the end of the WaveWare - we never got to do what we wanted with our technology and the whole market for this type of product fell apart in such a way that I really couldn’t pick it up and move ahead. For several years I had been working on the side with many younger entrepreneurs several of whom had worked for me. So after the Palm episode I spent more time advising them. I was connecting them with the people they needed to meet and, in general, doing a little “Bill Otterson” here and there. I enjoyed this activity so much that I began talking with a guy who ran a San Diego venture firm – I was attractive to his firm because I had what venture capital people call a large amount of ”deal flow”. I knew a lot of people. I had been around for a long time, and lots of people were coming to me for advice, connections and funding. And so I became a venture partner at Windward Ventures. I really liked this firm best among all the local firms because they never closed a session with an entrepreneur by saying, “We’ll get back to you” and never calling them. They always delivered great advice to whomever pitched to them. They were frank with advice such as “this is a difficulty”, “this is a strength”, “you should go in this direction”, etc. Those one to two hour sessions were always extremely valuable for the entrepreneur even if we didn’t fund them because they got honest and sage advice.
CARUSO: So constructive, not destructive, supportive, not -
DENNIS: Absolutely. And I know because at WaveWare, we weren’t lucky enough to get advice like that. We did raise money. But, as I tell people, I had calluses on my knees from begging and warts on my lips from kissing frogs because I saw so many venture people. Raising money was very difficult. It It was harder for female CEO’s to raise money that for male CEO’s in those years. Even though I had a great track record and a great product, I met with a lot of “no’s” from VCs. The money I raised I raised from friendly angels. So I decided to make the venture experience a positive one for others whenever I could – i.e. if you don’t get money from me, at least you get something.
DENNIS: And so I did that for several years until the venture world collapse in San Diego. During that time, I became involved with a number of startups. Now I serve on company boards, one publicly held and the rest privately held. I’ve gotten involved with a variety of other activities supporting entrepreneurship in San Diego. I joined Tech Coast Angels, an angel investing group; the companies that present to Tech Coast Angels now also get constructive feedback as opposed to an unexplained rejection. Years ago I was a founding board member and a Board President for what was once the San Diego telecom industry association. Recently the organization has refocused on supporting entrepreneurship by running a no-cost incubator called EvoNexus – I’ve been active in this effort by helping to select the companies admitted to the incubator and advising a small number of them. For many years I also ran a program within this same organization that provided frank and valuable advice to companies by arranging small panels of experts to address a company’s biggest issues. Panels were made up of people an entrepreneur normally wouldn’t have access to were it not for this program. We have received an immense amount of appreciation for this program from entrepreneurs who’ve participated. I also work with another group called Chairman’s Roundtable who aren’t necessarily in technology, but in general business. The companies they see come to this organization for guidance by members; usually there is a team of two members who help them through their tough spots.
CARUSO: I don’t want to trivialize it, but in some ways coaching for companies…
DENNIS: So that’s how I spend my time now. I also do a huge amount of not-for-profit work. Currently I’m chair of San Diego’s best music presenting organization – La Jolla Music Society. It was founded in 1968, and it is doing some very exciting things including building a 500-seat concert hall in downtown La Jolla. That takes a lot of time, as do the other not-for-profits on whose boards I sit. The good thing about industry people participating in not-for-profits is that someone from the business community can bring a lot of business knowhow to the not-for-profits and be of great benefit to them. I’ve also been head of High Tech Night at the Opera for 16 years; for me it’s a way to connect the arts with the tech community which I believe is really good for San Diego.
CARUSO: Thank you very much for your time.
DENNIS: Thank you. End of Interview
END OF INTERVIEW