"We have about 30 employees now, and 21 have Ph.D.s," said Bill Miller, Nanostellar's chairman and one of its founders. The Redwood City startup applies super-small nanotechnology "quantum chemistry" to catalytic converters that give a molecular cleansing to diesel engine exhaust. While the company is already shipping some products, Miller said Nanostellar "is still deeply scientific at this stage."
Miller's name may be familiar if only because it's so common. Or perhaps because this Bill Miller is a tweedy eminence in Silicon Valley, having straddled the dynamic of academics and industry since arriving at Stanford University in 1964 to help launch its computer science department.
At 81, Miller maintains a busy portfolio of interests. As a Stanford emeritus professor, he continues to lecture in the executive education program of the Graduate School of Business. But his busiest role may be as a kind of unofficial, globe-trotting emissary of Silicon Valley in this age of accelerating globalization.
As co-director of the Stanford Project on Regions of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SPRIE), he recently traveled to South Korea and Australia to deliver talks to audiences eager to replicate what Miller calls thefrom Business 1
valley's "habitat for entrepreneurship." Next week he's scheduled to discuss local economic development and nanotechnology in Madrid, Spain, and later this year his itinerary includes conferences in Malaysia and Hangzhou, China.
Wherever he goes, Miller is regarded as kind of an elder statesman of the valley. The man who today fosters cutting-edge 21st century nanotechnology is the same Bill Miller who, as a young physicist studying the atom, became enthralled with computers while working at University of Chicago's Argonne National Laboratory.
It was Stanford's legendary Frederick Terman, known for mentoring students such as Bill Hewlett, David Packard and the Varian brothers, who in 1964 recruited Miller to The Farm. Over time, Miller rose to assume prominent leadership roles. Like Terman before him, Miller topped off his career at Stanford as vice president and provost.
Miller divided time between academia and business. He was involved in the creation of the Mayfield Fund, a pioneer venture capital fund. He nurtured Stanford's Office of Technology Licensing. Other universities were doing it, Miller said, "but we did it right."
After Stanford, he spent 11 years as president and chief executive of SRI International, the private research institute that had spun off from the university. He also served on many corporate boards, including Borland Software, Varian Associates, Pacific Gas & Electric and Wells Fargo Bank.
As an angel investor, Miller funded various startups, sometimes investing in the ideas of former students. At the early stage of the Internet boom, for example, he helped two former students launch the Web directory called WhoWhere?, which was later acquired by Lycos Inc.
Much of his lecturing today stems from his role as co-director of SPRIE, where he was co-editor of "The Silicon Valley Edge," a 2000 book in which valley figures explained the region's unique business dynamic. He also helped produce "Making IT," SPRIE's 2006 book that examined the development of information technology hubs in China, India, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore.
When a conversation with Miller drifts down memory lane, the content conveys perspective rather than nostalgia. A discussion about China's growth sparked a precise memory: Miller's role in the late 1970s in negotiating the first academic exchange after President Nixon opened relations with the Communist regime. Eight Chinese grad students came to Stanford. Today, Miller says, the largest contingent of foreign students at Stanford about 370 come from China.
In recent interviews, MediaNews sought Miller's perspective on the valley with the emphasis on the present and future.
Q: "The Silicon Valley Edge" described the unique culture that made Silicon Valley the global leader in innovation. As other regions keep improving their own tech "habitats," is the valley in danger of losing its edge?
A: Certainly we will feel the competition. The question is, how will we stay ahead? One fact I've observed is that it's easier to build up the resources than to build up the habitat - this favorable business environment. We have some short-term and long-term advantages.
It's the regulatory environment, the cultural attitudes, the social and professional networks that connect people. It's the attitude toward failure how you deal with that. Those are things that are much harder to change than it is to build up the research facilities.
So I think we will continue to be in a leading position. And other people in the world know that because the business people are building connections as fast as they can.
Q: The valley's big companies are prospering in the global economy, and there's growth in several fields, such as biotech and "cleantech." But some studies suggest the valley's economy is widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. What should be done?
A: That's an important question. The most important thing for the U.S. to be doing right now, and Silicon Valley in particular, is to develop programs to continually help the work force reshape itself, through both formal and informal education.
The politicians need to make it clear that lifetime employment is gone, and you as a worker are going to have to keep preparing yourself for new jobs. I think both the private sector and public sector have a role to help keep upgrading the work force. At the end, a quality work force is what positions you as a strong competitor.
Q: What else would you wish for the valley?
A: Another thing I'd like to see and this is so commonly said is a stronger primary and secondary school system. I think that's going to require major change.
Q: Do you favor a reform such as school vouchers?
A: The issue is to find out what's effective. It means finding people who are not driven by ideology, but an understanding of what really works and being practical about it. It has to start pretty early to get people excited about learning.
Q: You could choose to devote more time to wildlife photography or academic pursuits or just taking it easy. Why did you become involved in Nanostellar?
A: Oh, it's fun. It looked like a good, interesting thing to do. I think nanotech is in the early stage, and I always liked to involve myself in the early stage. I got involved in the early stage of computing, when we made our own computers. I was early stage in the nuclear physics, high-energy physics ...
At an early stage you invest small amounts for financial reasons, but I also find it interesting to help people at that stage. Mentoring people I think is just another form of teaching.
Contact Scott Duke Harris at email@example.com or (408) 920-2704.