Williams gives $1M for new building and professorship

ECE News

Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS

Story Highlights

  • Alumnus Richard K. Williams has given $1 million for the new ECE building and an endowed professorship.
  • Williams is well known for inventing the first trench power MOSFET in 1990. He subsequently founded his own company, Advanced Analogic Technologies, which became a leading producer of power-management components for mobile devices.
  • Williams's connection with this department began with Professor John Bardeen, who advised Williams on a high-school science-fair project in 1975.

Whether you know the name or not, trench power MOSFETs are almost everywhere. Quite likely, they’re in your pocket and on your desk. They’re in the electrical systems of the cars and trucks that zip past as you wait to cross the street.

A specialized type of power-management transistor, they charge lithium ion batteries and drive the motors in refrigerators and fans. They regulate the power supplies for modern lighting systems and enable airbag deployment. And they were first developed in 1990 by ECE alumnus Richard K. Williams, who was, at the time, a senior director at the California-based semiconductor company Siliconix. 

Throughout his career, Williams (BSEE ’80) has been extremely supportive of ECE ILLINOIS — returning at least once a year, over the past two decades, for annual alumni meetings, where he catches up with faculty and students. And recently, Williams gave a $1 million gift to the department.

Richard K. Williams
Richard K. Williams
Half will go toward the new ECE building, in which he is sponsoring a classroom, and the other half will create an endowed professorship. 

“People thank me, but actually, I thank the university,” Williams said last fall, at a gathering of faculty and students. “And the university is made of people…So in the long run, I’m thanking all of you for making this possible generation after generation.”

The Richard K. Williams Classroom will be on the fourth floor of the new building, right beside laboratories for electronic circuits. 

“[The classroom] will help bring students together to study energy, information, and process integration for future applications as diverse as electric transportation, interactive pad computers, personal medical devices, and renewable energy,” said Professor Philip Krein, an authority in the area of power electronics and the chairman of the department’s building committee. 

Power electronics is the field in which Williams — at this point — has made his most heralded breakthroughs. After working at Siliconix, Williams founded his own company, Advanced Analogic Technologies in 1998.

The timing put the company at the frontline of the mobile applications boom, and it quickly became a leader in power management for those devices. Its LED charge pump was used, in 2002, to power the white LEDs that backlit the first color cellphone display. Its components powered the first LED camera flash three years later, and drive the dynamic LED backlighting for low-power, flat-screen televisions.

“They provide the energy-management ‘muscle’ for portable electronics, miniature medical devices, advanced safety sensors, video displays, LED lamps, and everything that uses them,” Krein explained. “We hear about the microprocessor ‘brains’ for these things, but they cannot function at all and would not exist without this high-performance energy management.”

In some ways, Williams’s career can be traced back to his high school days, growing up in Barry, Illinois, among the rolling hills between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. Williams presented at the state science fair competitions each year, held then, as they are now on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana-Champaign. It was through those competitions that Williams became familiar with the work of John Bardeen, a professor from this department who is noted for co-inventing the transistor and the only individual to win the Nobel Prize in Physics twice.

Williams called Bardeen regarding a semiconductor problem on his junior-year project, and he was invited to visit Bardeen’s lab for assistance. The result was a thermoelectrically cooled power semiconductor device, which won a Motorola special award at the International Science and Engineering Fair in 1975. Bardeen continued to provide mentorship when Williams came to study electrical engineering as an undergraduate, and in the process, the two developed a lifelong friendship.

“My education here was amazing,” Williams said during his talk last fall. “It laid a fundamental framework of physics, material science, chemistry, but understanding the way nature works, and then on top of it, it [taught] here’s one way to use that information, here’s another way, here’s another way.”

In early 2012, Williams and his partners sold Advanced Analogic Technologies after an unsolicited offer from the Massachusetts-based semiconductor company Skyworks Solutions for about $300 million. Later that year, Williams established two new startups, both based in Hong Kong and Taiwan with subsidiaries around the world. One of the companies, Applied BioPhotonics, aims to design and manufacture novel devices for biomedical applications, while the other, Adventive Technology, provides engineering services and consulting for interdisciplinary and diverse high-tech enterprises. 

“Anytime you go into a new field…something that nobody’s ever done before, especially at the juxtaposition of different disciplines, then you can’t stand on the shoulders of somebody before,” Williams said. “And suddenly, you’re back down to your fundamental physics, your fundamental concepts of [electromagnetics] and electronics and thermodynamics. …And it’s then that you make great discoveries.”

Through Adventive, Williams also recently introduced a new business concept, IP banking, where entrepreneurs, innovators, startup companies, and investors with common goals can pool their intellectual property in an IPBank account, so as to conveniently deploy, share, and license their inventions across multiple businesses and enterprises globally. 

“By encouraging cooperative development rather than litigation, business-friendly IP accelerates the pace of innovation and the adoption of new technology,” Williams said. 

In addition to his recent gift to ECE ILLINOIS, Williams has also supported the department through service on the ECE Alumni Association Board of Directors for three terms, from 1996 to 2006. He was then selected as the board’s western region vice president in 1999 and served in that capacity for his second and third terms. For his commitment to education and research at the university, he was awarded the Marcia Peterman ECE Award in 2007. 

All the while, Williams’s own research has resulted in over 400 US patents issued and pending, and more than 100 journal articles and invited papers. He also coauthored three books, including Guide to State-of-the-Art Electron Devices (Wiley), published last year — a sort of timeline for the electronic innovations that, like the trench power MOSFETS, underpin the daily functions and interactions in modern societies. Williams wrote about power devices and integrated circuits for that book, but as evidenced by his latest startups, his engineering interests go beyond power electronics alone.

“If you’re in a field where you’re an expert, you’ve risen to the top, and once you’re an expert in that field…now it’s time to go do something that you’re a little bit uncomfortable with, something you don’t know,” Williams advised his audience last fall. “Take a chance to stretch out, into a new area because that’s when you’ll find a new discovery that somebody hasn’t thought of.”

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