Collaborator in chief
Don’t let the piles of paperwork fool you – G.P. Li has a systematic strategy for pursuing innovation
G.P. Li learned how to make an elevator pitch early in his career. His first corporate gig was with IBM, an innovative company that holds the top spot for number of U.S. patents granted. Today, the UC Irvine engineering professor and director of the campus’s California Institute for Telecommunications & Information Technology makes it his mission to teach students this valuable skill.
“My goal is to train them to be future leaders – CEOs and CTOs,” says Li, who has founded four companies based on his inventions.
He took his message to the public recently in a program titled “From Pitch to Rich,” featuring five entrepreneurial experts who’ve played different roles in the process of translating ideas into startups. Three of the companies highlighted at the event were launched in Calit2’s TechPortal – a technology business incubator Li created in 2010 to accelerate the transfer of university research into the marketplace.
The possibilities of science and technology excited Li at an early age. He vividly remembers his family being the first in his Taiwan neighborhood to buy a TV – so they could watch Americans land on the moon.
Li, 13 at the time, was impressed and inspired: “America was the land of opportunity, so far ahead of any other country in terms of science, technology and infrastructure. I set my goal then and there to go to the United States and learn from the top minds of the day.”
He followed through, landing at UCLA, where he earned master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering. Li went to work at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York as a researcher and leader of the technology group, moving up quickly and becoming one of the company’s youngest managers.
“I saw how IBM advanced knowledge and technology and how they worked with strategic partners,” says Li, who parlayed that understanding into his current role at Calit2.
In the late 1980s, he was lured to UC Irvine by Chen Tsai, now Chancellor’s Professor of electrical engineering & computer science. “I take great pride in having recruited G.P.,” Tsai says, adding that The Henry Samueli School of Engineering pursued Li precisely because of his combined solid-state electronics expertise and corporate experience.
“These were desirable credentials for establishing partnerships with local high-tech industries,” he notes. “G.P. has acquired substantial funding from various local companies to conduct research that has been important for the growth of our department and school.”
Li has served as Calit2 director for six years, the longest tenure in the institute’s 12-year history.
“G.P. possesses a unique skill set,” says Dr. Nancy Allbritton, a founder of UC Irvine’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and currently chair of biomedical engineering at the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University. She and Li worked together to develop bio-nano medical devices.
“He’s able to work productively with different groups of people of varying personality types and bring them together to achieve a goal,” Allbritton says. “It’s very hard to do. G.P. has great ideas and works incredibly hard.”
In addition to TechPortal, Li has initiated several Calit2 programs that leverage partnerships across disciplines, connect industry to faculty and students, spur innovation and benefit students. These include the California Plug Load Research Center, which focuses on improving energy efficiency; the eHealth Collaboratory, which seeks to empower healthcare and wellness with technologies; and the Multidisciplinary Design Program, an undergraduate research effort in which students from all over campus form teams and work on creative design projects.
Li’s goal is to train students to become innovative future leaders who can explore technology solutions for emerging or underdeveloped markets while understanding policy and user behaviors. And he believes collaborative, multidisciplinary research is the best way to foster innovation.
“Students need to learn how to fail – and fail fast – so they can learn to succeed,” he says. “In research, there are obstacles and failure. Students have to regroup, ask hard questions and try again. Today’s problems require a team approach. You cannot innovate in a silo.”
Li also serves as director of UC Irvine’s Integrated Nanosystems Research Facility. The full-scale fabrication shop – devoted to micro- and nanotechnology research and development – was founded by Li, Tsai and two other faculty members soon after Li’s arrival on campus.
“The INRF is a world-class facility where engineers carry out fundamental research in microtechnology and nanotechnology. It’s critical to new advances for the university and local businesses,” says former engineering school dean Nick Alexopoulos, now a vice president at Broadcom Corp. “Professor Li helped the INRF become a leading force nationally and internationally.”
Li’s success is driven by his characteristic ability to reach out across disciplines and build teams. A professor with appointments in three of the Samueli School’s five engineering departments – electrical engineering & computer science, biomedical engineering, and chemical engineering & materials science – Li holds 24 patents and began all four companies with his students.
However, as he has learned, there’s a big difference between being an innovator and being an entrepreneur.
“A patent shows an invention, which is novel, creative, even doable, but does it have marketability?” says Li, whose startups have since folded. “The process from invention to market adoption can be many years and requires that you know how to communicate your idea and earn an investor’s support.”
Still inspired by the possibilities of science and technology, he measures his accomplishments through those of his students. Li proudly states that three are now CEOs at self-founded, publicly traded companies.
“I am honored to work with the people here,” he says. “My mission is to see them succeed; that is my reward.”