A Spark of Philanthropy to Inspire Future Generations

TJ Rodgers

Dr. T.J. Rodgers’ contribution to support the IEEE SSCS- James D. Meindl Memorial Educational Fund was driven both by his respect for his mentor, Professor James D. Meindl, and his business savvy understanding of endowing funds for the next generation.

“Managing money for future generations has a lot in common with managing a business. When I ran Cypress Semiconductor, I was expected to make money for shareholders, and have profit left over to reinvest in the next generation of technology. The goal of endowments is to pick and manage diverse assets, grow the endowed funds to keep pace with inflation, plus enough money left to invest in programs – year after year,” explains Dr. Rodgers. “My gift to this fund is literally the gift that will keep on giving opportunities to future generations of students who would otherwise end up in debt.”

Dr. Rodgers’ career in the solid-state circuits field can be traced back to his last term as an undergraduate chemistry and physics student at Dartmouth College. On a lark, he took an electronics 101 introductory course his last term before graduation. During the term he used 1970‑vintage chips and amplifiers to make a “light organ,” a display that attached to a stereo to produce colors according to frequency and amplitude.

“I decided there and then I wanted to switch from physics to electrical engineering. The problem was that I was already accepted in physics with a fellowship at Stanford University,” shares Dr. Rodgers.

Dr. Rodgers, though, is persistent and persuasive. He called a Stanford physics department secretary on a dormitory pay phone to inform her of his program switch, and that he needed his fellowship to follow him to the EE department. She promptly informed him that was not how things worked. Undeterred, Dr. Rodgers drove from New Hampshire to California and began looking around the Stanford Electrical Engineering Department for a fellowship to support PhD work in EE.

He eventually found the Integrated Circuits (IC) Lab and asked the secretary to pass it on to Professor J.D. Meindl. The very next morning, the professor’s secretary called him, and asked if he could come in that day to interview with Dr. Meindl. Dr. Meindl was making ICs on silicon wafers, which used high‑temperature chemistry for fabrication and physics to describe their behavior.

“I didn’t know anything about ICs when I walked in to meet him, beyond that one course. But I had other redeeming factors that interested him – like the ability to understand the chemical processes used for the new epitaxial reactor in the IC lab. So, Dr. Meindl – “The Chief” we called him back then, you see, he was a former military man with a flat-top – broke his rule on hiring rookies and invited me to work in his IC lab and become a graduate student at Stanford,” remembers Dr. Rodgers.

Dr. Rodgers worked in the IC Lab for 5 years, receiving his master’s degree (1973) and Ph.D. (1975) in electrical engineering from Stanford. He went on to work at Silicon Valley chip companies American Microsystems Inc., and Advanced Micro Devices before launching Cypress Semiconductor Corporation.  He would helm Cypress Semiconductor Corporation for 34 years, 31 years as a public company, a record for a chip‑company CEO.

“In retrospect, it was obvious I would follow the career path I did, but at the time it felt like a string of coin‑flip decisions. I was made to do this, and I am most happy when I am working on chips because of their chemistry, physics, EE interdisciplinary nature. I was in the right place at the right time,” contemplates Dr. Rodgers.

Dr. Rodgers remembers his time at Stanford with Dr. Meindl fondly. He took just one course from him but points out his influence was much larger. Dr. Meindl gave him the ability to work in a multi‑million‑dollar lab and provided connections to industry. Above all, Dr. Rodgers remembers Dr. Meindl’s kindness.

“He was patient and generous when working with students. My first year in California,” remembers Dr. Rodgers, “I couldn’t afford to fly home for Thanksgiving, which is my favorite holiday. So, I got an invitation to his house for Thanksgiving.” His wife, Freddy, served up a memorable family‑style turkey dinner that reminded me of home.

Dr. Rodgers first became involved with IEEE while he was a student at Stanford. Upon learning that IC Lab students and professors as a group had written the most IEEE papers on integrated circuits in the prior year, he started working on a paper. He gave his first paper in 1973 at the International Electron Device Meeting in Washington, D.C. He would go on to win the IEEE Solid State Circuits Conference Best Paper award twice, once in 1975 and again in 1976.

To this day, Dr. Rodgers is still involved with integrated circuits, but his main interest has shifted to lithium‑ion batteries – because the combination of their rudimentary state and high importance reminds him of ICs in the 1970s and 1980s.  He is an avid runner, and has sustained his drive and inquisitiveness into his seventh decade of life and still gravitates towards making things work for the first time.

He is also a tad self-deprecating: “I am becoming a dinosaur in Electrical Engineering, because, it has moved so far, so fast. The new students are very smart and very energetic. They know what they want – software, AI, cloud computing,” Dr. Rodgers explains, shedding some light on why he was interested in supporting an endowed fund that will benefit students far into the future.

Dr. Rodgers is no dinosaur, despite what he might say. After stepping down from Cypress Semiconductor Corporation in 2016, he has since invested in high efficiency solar cells produced by the Complete Solaria Corporation, as well as the renewable energy firm Enphase, the U.S. leader in solar panel microinverters and other tech startups in home fuel cells, photon‑multiplying coatings for solar glass, and connecting farms to the Internet of Things. He holds 20 patents ranging from semiconductors to energy to winemaking. He is also an active speaker, and when asked what he would want the average American to know about his field that had bettered the world, he shared the following:

“For almost all my life, American cars got just 8 miles per gallon. You could smell the raw gasoline in their exhaust. Today, the average car gets 35 miles per gallon, and the best ones get over 50 miles per gallon. The first time I drove into Silicon Valley on Highway 101 in 1969, I came into a huge brown cloud that covered San Francisco Bay. But that is gone now. Cars have more power, better gas mileage, and produce just a tiny fraction of the pollution because chips control their engines. Integrated circuits control the timing of the spark plug and fuel injector, and temperature and pressure sensors constantly optimize engine performance.” explains Dr. Rodgers, “making today’s automobiles both clean and high performing. And now, electric cars, made by Tesla in Silicon Valley, are making transportation cleaner yet – and a lot less expensive.”

Read about the Inaugural James D. Meindl Innovators Award recipient Professor Azad Naeemi and the 2023 recipient Dr. Daniel Limbrick.

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