Move over, Thomas Edison.
You’re known to generations as America’s greatest inventor. You developed the phonograph, the movie camera, the electric light. You received 1,093 patents from the U.S..
But now, here in Boise, somebody has topped you. Somebody most Boiseans have never heard of.
Meet Gurtej Sandhu. He has lived in Boise for 29 years. And he has racked up 1,299 U.S. patents by the latest count. The seventh-most of anyone. In the world. In all time.
Gurtej Singh Sandhu was born in London to parents from India. He studied electrical engineering in India before coming to the United States to pursue a doctorate in physics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Sandhu was interested in integrated circuits — electronic circuits formed on a small piece of semiconducting material. As his graduate study neared its end in 1989, his technical skills were in demand. He weighed two job offers. One came from Texas Instruments, then the top American computer-memory maker. The other came from Micron Technology, an 11-year-old upstart in Boise struggling against government-subsidized memory-chip makers in Japan and other countries.
“Micron, which was No. 18 on the list of (memory) companies, their vision was to be No. 1 in the world,” he said. He liked that. But he worried that Micron would fail.
Starting a new life
A professor encouraged him. You’ll be put in a box at Texas Instruments because you lack experience, the professor told him, but at Micron you’ll have freedom to solve all kinds of engineering problems. And even if Micron fails, you can still get another job.
So he joined Micron. In Boise, he worked to sustain something called Moore’s Law. In 1965, Intel cofounder Gordon Moore observed that the number of transistors on a unit of area in an integrated circuit was doubling every year. Sandhu found ways to cram more memory cells onto chips and make them more efficient. He racked up patent after patent.
Micron would own those patents, but Sandhu — and, frequently, colleagues with whom he collaborated — would receive credit for them and share $1,000 bonuses (now $2,000) for each one.
Moore’s Law was a trend, not a law of physics. As memory cells on chips kept shrinking, engineers reached the point where they could no longer fit more zeroes and ones onto flat chips. Sandhu began to focus on stacking layers of two-dimensional memory atop one another. Stacking, still a work in progress, demands new processes to make it effective and affordable.
“The technical complexity of what we need to do today is exponentially more difficult” than it was when he started, Sandhu said.
As Micron has fostered closer ties with Boise State University, Sandhu has played a key role. For 15 years, he has mentored engineering majors and faculty alike.
“He has tremendous humility, in particular given the scale of impact that he’s had,” said Will Hughes, director of the university’s Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering. “And he has his finger on the pulse of emerging technology and emerging memory on the global scale.”
Hughes adds: “He’s deeply committed to his family and friends.” Sandhu and his wife, Sukesh, raised two sons: Gureet, a Boise State graduate who works at Boise’s Albertsons Cos. buying candy from the grocer’s suppliers (and who DJs at Boise’s Revolution Concert House); and Sunny, who works in Australia.
Micron’s big Boise change
When Sandhu arrived in Idaho, Micron made most of its chips in fabrication plants, or fabs, on its Boise campus. As the 1990s passed into the 2000s, time began to pass those fabs by. Micron closed the last of them in 2009. A company that employed 12,000 people in Boise a decade earlier had fewer than 5,000 left.
Under successive CEOs, the Boise campus has shifted from a manufacturing center to a research hub. Once a big employer of mostly manufacturing workers, Micron in Boise today is a smaller employer of highly paid engineers and scientists, roughly half of whom Sandhu said come from abroad. (Though, with 6,800 Boise workers including administrative, support and other personnel, Micron still employs more Idahoans than any other for-profit employer.)
The Boise campus still has fabs, but they’re for research and development; only a few of their cutting-edge chips are sold to customers. Chips for sale are made in Virginia, Utah and Asia.
“There’s been a huge change since I joined,” Sandhu said.
Sandhu said being an immigrant in Boise comes with challenges. American-born citizens sometimes think he’s Arab. He once asked a group of students to guess where he was from; one said Japan. The U.S. is more insular than other nations, he said: “Today, if I’m in Belgium, even the janitors know, ‘Yeah, you’re from India and you’re Sikh.”
After 9/11, a woman in Boise saw him driving his black SUV, wearing his turban, a symbol of his faith. She called the police. Nothing came of the call, Sandhu said. In some countries, he said, such a report may have led to intimidation or extortion. He laughed about the incident with colleagues and still finds the story amusing.
“The reality is there is no place in the world, no society, where a minority does not feel uncomfortable,” he said. “But I’ll tell you: Today, the best place for any minority to live in any society is the United States. … In terms of basic fairness, still, there’s nothing matching this country.” It’s not always easy for Micron to lure nonwhite immigrants to mostly white Boise, he said. Once they come, though, “they stay here for the rest of their lives.”
And Micron is stable now.
Two-thirds of the 20 makers of dynamic random-access memory in 1995 are now out of the business, and just three — Micron and its bigger Korean rivals, Samsung and SK Hynix — account for 95 percent of the global DRAM market. Brutal competition and big price swings have given way to an oligopoly and less-volatile prices, contributing to record Micron sales and profits.
Sandhu sees that as cause for celebration. He notes that Micron’s past competitors were usually government-subsidized, while Micron was not.
“All our lives we’ve waited for this to happen,” he said. “Our game plan was: If we hang on long enough and keep competing, maybe there will be three left, and once there are only three left, you have a big enough market, big enough profit margins,” he said. “I pinch myself.”
With the rise of artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles, large-scale data processing and the Internet of Things, the world’s memory needs will only grow. For Sandhu, that means more patents.
“A few years ago I passed Edison, right? So people started making noise,” he said. While he doesn’t compare himself to Edison as an inventor, he does like to see processes he patented used by other people, in their computers and portable devices.
“That’s my reward,” he said: “Sitting in Boise, Idaho, and working for Micron, and everybody in the world is using your patent, using things you came up with.”
David Staats: 208-377-6417, @davidstaats