“Formidable and fearless” were just two of the terms used to describe John Roberts when he was handed the lifetime achievement award by the Information Technology Association of Canada eight years ago.
But those adjectives didn’t just apply to the technological acumen that helped him found three groundbreaking semiconductor companies, patent more than a dozen applications and revolutionize the powering of some of the electronics we use on a daily basis.
Those characteristics also allowed him to survive his upbringing in his hometown of Merthyr Tydfil, a small industrial town just north of the Welsh capital, Cardiff, where he had many of his teeth knocked out in bouts of fisticuffs by the time he turned 18.
As part of a large family in one of Britain’s less economically prosperous areas, Mr. Roberts grew up witnessing the wealth disparity that often persisted even between brothers and sisters, and vowed to do better for himself. Thankfully, for his own future and that of the semiconductor industry, he was also brighter than many of the people he hung around with.
“He was lucky that people recognized some sort of talent and encouraged him on his way in life,” said his son, Matt.
Solving a washing machine manufacturing problem in his first job at the Hoover Company opened the door to a professional development scholarship at nearby Swansea University, where he studied electrical engineering, specializing in semiconductors. He eventually left with a masters degree – and a lifelong dedication to learning.
“You’ve got to better yourself,” he said a few years ago. “I’m famous or infamous for carrying around tonnes of paper, and I also carry around a laptop.
“[As Sir Isaac Newton said], ‘You’ve got to stand on the shoulders of giants in order to see further,’ so I read everything.”
However, after seeing many lesser-qualified colleagues achieve promotion at his expense, Mr. Roberts felt he was being held back from moving into a customer-facing role because of his heavy Welsh accent.
But Canada’s MicroSystems International (MIL) held no such biases. The Ottawa-based microelectronics company was looking for bright, young engineering talent, and having already hired some of his Swansea classmates, also extended an offer to Mr. Roberts.
His arrival in Canada in 1972, where he was joined the following spring by his wife, Joy, marked the beginning of an almost 50-year love affair with his adopted country.
Matt Roberts said while his father was never not a Welshman – he recalls him being shocked when the perennially downtrodden Welsh soccer club Swansea City was promoted to the English Premier League in 2011 – he was very much a Canadian at heart, too.
“He felt sort of an IOU back to South Wales, to what was given him by the British government and by the Hoover Company,” Matt said. “But at the same time, he thought that Canada had given him the opportunities to go far. And he sort of felt that this country works.”
With his career off and running on the other side of the world, Mr. Roberts moved on first to Computing Devices Canada and then to Mosaid Systems, a startup founded by some former colleagues at MIL. But when he discovered that his employer showed no willingness to distribute equal stock among the employees, he branched out on his own to found Calmos Microsystems in 1983.
It was during this period that Mr. Roberts realized that he had no interest in the bureaucracy that often consumes early-stage companies, choosing instead to focus on the technical side of his industry and building leading-edge technologies.
That passion was on display for all the family to see back in Wales that year.
“He started [Calmos] right as my mother’s father died,” Matt said. “So I remember as a young child going to my grandfather’s home, and my dad had taken over the dining room, because they were having the funeral the next day when he was designing the chip to start his new company.”
When Calmos was acquired by Newbridge Networks in 1989, Mr. Roberts moved on to become president of the Strategic Microelectronics Consortium, where he helped invest in companies such as PMC-Sierra and Genesis Microsystems.
He left there in 1995 to found SiGe Microsystems, a company that used new technology based on the alloy silicon-germanium to power all kinds of electronic products, from Apple to Nintendo. After spinning out another company called SiGeM that built modules, Mr. Roberts moved on from there in 2001, and spent the next seven years or so figuring out what to do next.
Then gallium nitride came along.
“It goes into everything that you use,” Mr. Roberts said. “Everything that is plugged into the wall or charged, with absolute certainty, is going to use gallium nitride, because you can make it smaller and cheaper.”
Mr. Roberts founded GaN Systems in 2008 to build semiconductor chips that would be used in cars, phone and laptop chargers, solar power and a host of other applications. They included his personal favourite: audio speakers.
“John didn’t start getting systems to do power electronics,” Matt said. “He did it because he wanted to build a better speaker. My dad has always been an audiophile.”
The quest for a better speaker and amplifier runs through much of Mr. Roberts’s work life.
“So SiGe was because he wanted to build a wireless speaker,” Matt said. “And GaN Systems was because he wanted to have, you know, gallium nitride audio amplifiers at some point. But he kept discovering better applications than the ones he was initially scouting when he started.”
Matt recalls a cherished moment when he secured his father an audience with Andrew Jones, a renowned speaker designer.
“My dad thought this was the greatest present I’ve ever given him,” Matt said.
Today, GaN Systems is the largest supplier of gallium nitride semiconductors, and Mr. Roberts worked up until about six months ago, when he moved into Timberwalk Retirement Community in Kanata, Ont. There he could be close to his wife, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Mr. Roberts died on May 15 of kidney disease, less than a month shy of his 78th birthday. He leaves his wife, Joy; son, Matt, daughter, Sarah, and two grandchildren.
In acknowledgement of Mr. Roberts’s lifelong devotion to learning, the family is setting up an educational bursary for promising engineering students.
“Education gave him this opportunity and he recognized that education was the only thing that separated him from being that young lad in Wales,” Matt said.