Singer invested as Fox Family Professor

5/14/2014 Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS

Professor Andy Singer has been named a Fox Family Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Written by Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS

When Professor Andrew Carl Singer took the stage in the Beckman Auditorium on May 6, there was an ebullient air in room. Those in attendance were wearing suits and bright, summery dresses. Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Provost and ECE Professor Ilesanmi Adesida were on stage,

Professor Andy Singer.
Professor Andy Singer.
and before an audience of Singer’s family and colleagues, graduate students and alumni, they invested him as a Fox Family Professor.

An investiture ceremony, as ECE Professor Andreas C Cangellaris, dean of Engineering at Illinois, said in his opening remarks, is a double honor, recognizing both a faculty member and the donors who made endowed professorship possible.

In this case, the affinity between Singer, who is the director of Illinois’s Technology Entrepreneur Center, and the donors, Peter and Kim Fox, is evident. Among other business activities, Peter directs the development of the Research Park on the south side of campus, the local home for technology companies like Yahoo and Raytheon, in addition to dozens of startup businesses.

“Andy is deeply passionate about entrepreneurship,” said Professor Naresh R Shanbhag, who introduced Singer during the ceremony. He recalled that in 1998, when Singer joined the faculty after two years at Lockheed Martin, the two would talk over coffee at the Coordinated Science Laboratory, and Singer would often ask about starting a company. As an expert in signal processing for wireless, optical, and underwater communications, Singer was eager to implement those ideas commercially. 

“For Andy, the future is now,” Shanbhag said. “When he wants to do something, he just gets started.”

So, in 2000, the two co-founded Intersymbol Communications, a company that specialized in integrated circuits for optical communications. The operation was based on Fox Drive in Champaign. Singer worked as CEO, talking with clients and investors—including the Champaign Urbana Venture Fund, part of the Fox Development Corporation—while still playing an important role in the technology development. Shanbhag recalls that the company’s first patent stemmed from a conversation on a plane flight back to Champaign-Urbana.

“Andy turned around to me on the plane and said, ‘Naresh, have you thought about using maximum likelihood sequence estimation (MLSE) for optical [communications]?’” Shanbhag said. In the end, “I can tell you that our choice of MLSE was, in fact, a major contributor to our success, because this was something that our competitors never thought about, never thought that it could be done.”

In 2007, the company merged with Finisar Corporation, which is now the world’s largest supplier of optical components for the communications industry. A team of Finisar engineers is stationed in the offices on Fox Drive today, continuing to build upon the successes of Intersymbol Communications.

At the Technology Entrepreneur Center, Singer oversees a program that works with faculty and students as they consider making the transition from the research lab to the business table. The center hosts the Cozad New Venture Competition, which encourages students to build sustainable businesses.

Peter and Kim Fox.
Peter and Kim Fox.
(The competition was established with the support of Peter Fox.) In 2014, Singer was also appointed as a special adviser to the dean for innovation and entrepreneurship. 

His academic achievements have been widely recognized by the professional community. Among other honors, he is a Fellow of IEEE, and most recently, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer of the IEEE Signals Processing Society. He has also served as an expert witness on communications and circuit technologies at the International Trade Commission and for cases tried in the U.S. District Court. 

After receiving the medallion for the investiture, Singer addressed the audience, thanking the support that he’d received from family, including his wife Cathy, who is a senior engineering director and the site director at Yahoo’s Champaign campus, and also colleagues and students. 

He also thanked the Foxes for their role promoting local entrepreneurship. “Really, the economic and entrepreneurship ecosystem that we have here is because of the work that you’ve done,” Singer said.

Beyond their development accomplishments, which have significantly supported entrepreneurship, the Foxes have been widely involved in philanthropic work throughout the community.

“Peter and Kim Fox ... have been amazing, not only in this professorship, but in so many other [ways],” Chancellor Wise said during the ceremony. “From our Research Park to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts to the Krannert Museum, Peter and Kim Fox’s generosity touches all of these elements.”

In some ways, Singer's investiture ceremony could have been predicted years before. At the end of his introduction, Shanbhag displayed a screenshot of a 2005 News-Gazette article, published shortly after the Fox’s $2 million gift to the university was announced. In the article, Peter Fox mentions Singer, by name, as the type of entrepreneurial scholar that would be a perfect fit for the professorship.

“And Peter,” Shanbhag said, “We agree with you, wholeheartedly.”

Share this story

This story was published May 14, 2014.