03 Sep Guri Sohi: Madison likely to see more tech giants
Madison, Wis. – The presence Google and Microsoft has focused more attention on Madison’s information technology status, and the former chair of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Computer Sciences Department believes Madison is likely to see more technology giants set up stakes here.
Guri Sohi, who is preparing for an academic-year sabbatical in Spain, said more computer professors might be looking for the challenge of driving research for prominent technology firms, but such companies may have to catch them at the right time.
“I think you can expect to see more,” said Sohi, who will be succeeded by Mary Vernon, a professor of computer science and industrial engineering. “It all depends on the stakes. There is a fair amount of leg work on the part of an individual faculty member, and that takes away from their being a faculty member. So if somebody is looking for a different challenge, you could probably see more of this.”
While Sohi expects continued interest from the big players, there is a fair amount of new blood in the Computer Sciences Department. About 40 percent of the faculty has been hired as assistant professors since 1998, and a lot of faculty members don’t want to get into entrepreneurial ventures because they enjoy teaching and research obligations.
Still, the department has had relationships with Google and Microsoft for a long time, and those associations led to the establishment of local offices. According to Sohi, computer sciences professor David DeWitt, a prominent researcher in database systems, had a lot of UW alumni work with top talent in the Microsoft product group. Several years ago, he was looking for a new challenge and proposed to Microsoft an advanced development lab, but found it difficult to be both a faculty member and be involved in the lab, and it was cancelled at the last minute.
DeWitt resurrected the lab, which will focus on database research, in the last year and a half, and Microsoft was “very keen to get it going again,” Sohi said.
Google’s engineering office, which will concentrate on hardware and software systems design, is a different story in that one of its faculty members, Jim Smith, decided he no longer wanted to write grants, so he decided to retire. “When Google found out he was going to retire, they tried to get him to work for them, and he said, `no, I’m not interested in moving to California,’” Sohi said. “He wanted summers off to go fishing. They said `no problem, we’ll take care of both requests,’ and build a lab around him in Madison.”
IT tech transfer
The business model for IT companies is not heavily reliant on patents. Due to the policies of UW-Madison, it hasn’t been easy to transfer software technology from the university to commerce using traditional licensing models employed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. As WARF’s Carl Gulbrandsen has explained to WTN, the presumption by the faculty is that they own the intellectual property, but when the software is written more by students than by faculty, that throws a wrench in the works. The faculty may come up with an algorithm, but WARF may have to get assignment from students with respect to the code, which could involve negotiating with upwards of 40 people.
Nemean Networks, which is developing network security software, and NovaShield, which has developed a malware detection system and is seeking a patent, are examples of software companies that have been spun out of the university. As Sohi explained, technology transfer involving software tends to take the path of least resistance.
“While we may not be following the traditional licensing models like the pharmaceutical industry does, software and people can easily be transferred,” he said. “In fact, it’s critical for any start-up company in computer science coming out of the university that it has the people who develop the technology in a university, which is typically students.
“If it doesn’t have an enrollment, it’s not going too far down the road.”
The Computer Science Department continues to work with WARF to find a workable model. “We’re constantly working on it,” Sohi said. “WARF is very flexible to try a different model, and so we’ll see where it goes from there.”
In a department whose strengths lie in databases, computer architecture, and networking systems, Sohi said he cannot predict the next discovery that comes out of computer sciences. However, he noted the department’s future is centered on gathering knowledge from data in social networks, science, and biology. Developing computing systems to extract knowledge from that data will be the big challenge for the department’s experts in data management, mining techniques, and high-speed computing systems.
Sohi also acknowledged the department would start where the money is, and with technology that can be quickly monetized, so there may be some business in the area of social networking.
“We have a lot of talent that is doing a lot of very innovative work, and the question is how much of it will actually translate into a start-up company, how much of it will be used by big companies? Who knows at this point?” he asked.
As he prepares for an academic year sabbatical, Sohi reports that computer sciences enrollment is picking up. Although the official enrollment won’t be known for a few weeks, the department has seen introductory programming classes fill up that haven’t been filled in recent years, an indication that technology careers are being pursued again after a post dotcom lull.
Meanwhile, the placement of graduates continues at a high rate. “Companies are constantly looking for our graduates, just not finding them,” Sohi said.
He noted that IT openings here will be 2.5 times the number of degrees conferred, a workforce imbalance that can be exploited by technology entrepreneurs. “ If I was a business person, I would invest here because I’ll find cheaper labor,” he stated.
During his sabbatical, he will work with people in the Barcelona Super Computing Center in Spain, and welcomes the opportunity to refresh his teaching and research skills. Upon his return, he looks forward to being a regular faculty member.
“That’s a very fun job that I enjoy a lot,” he said.