ECE at the center of Celebrate Invention: 2022
At the center of attention at U-M’s Celebrate Invention 2022 event was the talk by 2022 Distinguished University Innovator, Prof. Wei Lu, and the ensuing distinguished panel discussion that focused on how to drive Ann Arbor’s tech transformation.
A wide range of organizations were also on hand to lend support to aspiring entrepreneurs, as well as investors.
Lu’s talk and the panel discussion can be viewed in its entirety:
Here are some highlights from the discussion:
Wei Lu has been a pioneer in the development and commercialization of novel electrical devices, and co-founded two companies that are spin-offs of his research: Crossbar, Inc (founded in 2010) and MemryX, Inc. (co-founded in 2018 with Prof. Zhengya Zhang).
Crossbar is focused on creating new memory devices in order to store more data on chip with faster access and lower power, while MemryX is focused on building better computers around those memory devices. Crossbar has established several product lines through its innovative Resistive Random Access Memory (RRAM) technology, and though a young company, MemryX has already developed AI Accelerator chips that are being tested by customers.
“No other industry has [evolved] as fast as the semiconductor industry,” said Lu.
The focus of semiconductor companies is to sell improved products at a lower cost, said Lu. Much of the improvement in computer performance and the shrinking of devices (from computers that take up an entire room to those that fit inside a smartphone, for example) depended on the shrinking of transistors. But traditional transistors have now gotten about as small and efficient as they’re going to get.
“You can make transistors faster,” said Lu of the current state of computing, “but you’re just improving a small piece of the system in terms of performance, cost and power.”
To make real progress at this point, says Lu, we need to improve data storage and data movement.
In other words, “it’s time to rethink computing,” said Lu. And this is what he’s been doing since 2005 – by building better memory structures to store and process data.
Artificial intelligence is the key application for his companies, especially AI at the edge (which some consider another way of saying Internet of Things). These applications include security cameras, automotive cameras for object detection, metaverse, industrial warehouses, and robotics in manufacturing.
Several former students are involved in Lu’s recent company, MemryX, students that he describes as being: extremely creative, extremely smart, and also down to earth, fun, and super dependable and loyal.
Harnessing the Power of Michigan to Drive Ann Arbor’s Tech Transformation
Following Lu’s talk, the conversation turned to “Harnessing the Power of Michigan to Drive Ann Arbor’s Tech Transformation,” with a distinguished panel featuring the following individuals:
- Mingyan Liu, Peter and Evelyn Fuss Chair of ECE, moderator, and the 2018 recipient of the Distinguished University Innovator award
- Wei Lu, 2022 Distinguished University Innovator, Professor of ECE and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
- Eric Michielssen, Louise Ganiard Johnson Professor of Engineering, Professor of ECE and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Associate Dean for Research in the College of Engineering
- Rick Wallace, ECE alumnus, President and Chief Executive Officer of KLA
- Dave Wentzloff, ECE Professor, Faculty Director for the Center for Entrepreneurship, co-founder of Everactive
KLA is an international semiconductor company that opened an Ann Arbor office in 2019.
“We’ve had tremendous success in recruiting people here,” said Wallace. “The biggest attractors are the quality of life and the University of Michigan.”
Prof. David Wentzloff has been involved in three startup companies, all of which have at least an office in Ann Arbor, and one is based in Ann Arbor.
He says Ann Arbor is a great place to start a company because of the attractive work-life balance and the talent pool coming out of U-M. And he says the out-of-state venture capitalists, who often try to lure companies away from Michigan, are starting to listen to the value of keeping companies here.
“In a 3-country region of Detroit,” said Wentzloff, “there are literally thousands of factories making things. Those things could become smart, but they’re only going to become smart with low-power compute at the edge. There’s a good marriage of the companies that are building the things that we all use, and the technology that could make those things smart.”
What’s the future of our discipline going to look like in 5-10 years?
“This integration of semiconductors in every aspect of our life,” said Michielssen, “and the shrinking of these devices, and the fact that quantum is around the corner, and the fact that this AI sauce lives on top of everything – that is is going to continue changing the world very quickly.”
But there’s another aspect that goes beyond the technology, added Michielssen. The technology described by Wei Lu and Dave Wentzloff has made life easier for us, and healthier, without changing the fabric of our society. But with the internet and wireless communication, people can chime in on every topic very quickly.
“In doing so, they are rewriting the DNA of our society,” said Michielssen. “And within electrical engineering and computer science, we’re going to have to grapple with these topics too.”
For example, can there be tools that help bring people together, rather than divide?
What’s your advice for someone who wants to commercialize their technology and start a company in Ann Arbor?
Wentzloff: “Do it! That’s the hardest part, starting. Take a risk and do it. It’s a lot of fun. Network.” (to connect with new people that can help you get to where you want to go).
“And take classes from the Center for Entrepreneurship. There are a lot of great classes that will get you ready for this.”
Wallace: “My first job in Silicon Valley was in a startup and the benefit of that is tremendous. You get a broad set of responsibilities and that causes you to learn at an accelerated rate. And if it doesn’t work out – we’re hiring!”
Wentzloff: “So are we!”