A. Richard Newton: Technologist with a Mission

Aart J. , Synopsys

Pages: pp. 6-7


Figure    Photo courtesy of University of California, Berkeley, College of Engineering.

With Richard Newton's abrupt passing (1951–2007) from pancreatic cancer, we lost a dear friend and a beacon of optimism. As I look back on the 25 years that I knew him closely, I now see how Rich matured from a focus on technology for technology's sake to something much greater-a love of technology for its positive impact on people's lives.

Technology and Education

Although Richard's fascination with technology goes all the way back to his youth, it soared when he moved from the University of Melbourne to the University of California, Berkeley, in 1975. He immediately found an intellectual home in Don Pederson's group, and the timing was fortunate. The Spice circuit simulator was spreading to industry, and managing this growth was the perfect opportunity for Rich. He put in place a maintenance and release process and rolled releases off the Berkeley presses like clockwork. Today, Spice is still a cornerstone of modern circuit design.

Rich's drive and skills did not go unnoticed, and he was hired onto the faculty immediately after graduation. Guided by Don, he built an industrial liaison program that rotated industry visitors, took input (and copious funding) from corporate sponsors, and delivered a broad set of industrial-strength electronic design automation (EDA) software for real chip design. This collaborative approach would remain a hallmark of Rich's style. Invariably, he would be the catalyst in assembling the right ideas at the right time, proposing a bold plan, aligning funding, and motivating outstanding people to succeed at the impossible.

A highlight of this phase was Rich's intense collaboration with Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli, and later Bob Brayton. Critical mass was achieved, and the Berkeley machine roared into action. Whereas Alberto and Bob brought analytical sophistication and rigor to the mix, Rich provided vision, motivation, and organizational energy.

A stellar teacher and a magnetic motivator, Rich is remembered by many of his students as the person who changed their lives. Asked two decades later what he was most proud of, Rich answered, "my students." It's no surprise that in 1987 he received the C. Holmes McDonald Outstanding Young Professor Award.

Entrepreneurial Catalyst

Through his students, the entrepreneurial phase of Rich's life took form. Jim Solomon, a design manager at National Semiconductor, had voiced reluctance to use marginally supported university software. Rich had a solution: He talked Jim into forming a company with some of Rich's top students, using a uniform data representation with well-controlled access routines implemented on emerging Unix workstations. This collaboration led to the formation of Solomon Design Automation (SDA), which, through its 1987 merger with ECAD, ultimately became Cadence.

Rich had his own style when tackling a new problem: "There's got to be a better way" always initiated intense brainstorming. His fearless "We can do that!" signaled that a bold idea was coming into focus. Then his contagious conviction and energy drove inescapably to action.

After the promising beginnings of SDA, Rich kept looking for "the next big thing." He found it in logic synthesis. In 1983, Rich and Don visited General Electric, where Rich first realized synthesis' potential. Further encouraged by research at IBM and AT&T, Rich became an active missionary for synthesis.

When Synopsys was formed in 1986, Rich and Alberto were staunch supporters. Only many years later did I fully appreciate how catalytic Rich was in that fragile formation stage. As a board member, all the way through his final meeting last year, Rich always added a unique voice. With a sparkle of mischief in his eyes, he would move with great enthusiasm and alarming speed from one idea to the next, while the rest of us were still toiling away in tedious implementation. Today his fingerprints remain visible all over Synopsys' DNA.

Although Synopsys and Cadence are the most visible examples, many other companies were influenced by Rich as well. He was active in Viewlogic, Pie, Redwood, Simplex, Tensilica, Windriver, Sonics, Lightspeed, and the Mayfield Venture Fund, and even for a while was CEO of Silicon Light Machines. For his tremendous impact, Rich received the 2003 Kaufman Award, the "Nobel Prize of EDA."

By the end of the nineties, though, Rich had become intellectually restless. After a short period as chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering at UC Berkeley, he became Dean of Engineering in 2000. This was the platform that Rich had been seeking, and he began the most fruitful phase of his life.

Technology with a Mission

Suddenly all his skills, experience, and spiritual beliefs aligned on his new mission: technology for the betterment of society. At breakneck speed, he created a bold plan, raised funds, and convinced colleagues and administration to proceed.

The results are inspiring. Today, on the UC Berkeley campus, the building is rising that will host the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (Citris). University researchers and industry partners are developing IT solutions to large-scale problems facing our society, including the environment, services to the third world, health care, emergency preparedness, and education. In Rich's own words: "We really are a global community; not just businesses, not just technology; we are one family. If you believe that people are a net positive, and I do, then technology can and must be used in the interest of society."

"We really are a global community; not just businesses, not just technology; we are one family. If you believe that people are a net positive, and I do, then technology can and must be used in the interest of society."-A. Richard Newton

Rich's recent activities centered on the Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology, a new discipline in which genes, proteins, and cells are joined together to build living systems. Already, projects are underway to convert bacteria into antimalaria treatments at a fraction of current costs. Rich's passion for this center was so great that in his last days he requested that others support this work. Our gifts will endow a fund in his name to realize the potential of his vision ( https://egiving.berkeley.edu/egiving/mainform.asp).

The arc of Richard's life brought him exactly where he needed to be, as everything he had worked on and believed in came together. In these last years, I saw him happier than ever as a focus on humanity became central to his technology mission. To me, Rich's greatest strength was his relentless optimism and ability to search for the positive in every situation. This applied to faculty, friends, and family alike. For the Kaufman Award in 2003, I asked his wife, Petra, to characterize his essence for me. She stated simply: "Rich has a big heart." I can add nothing more to that.

About the Authors

Aart J. de Geus is chair and CEO of Synopsys and chair of the EDA Consortium.
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