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John Roberts: Semiconductor pioneer always looking for next big thing

Entrepreneur and engingeer John Roberts has been around long enough to see semiconductors grow from a fledgling business into a multibillion-dollar industry.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

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With nearly 50 years as an innovator, entrepreneur and engineer under his belt, John Roberts has had a front-row seat as society has evolved in the digital age.

"I started my professional career in semiconductors back in 1968 and at that time we were a new industry," the 71-year-old explains. "Now it's a multi-multibillion-dollar industry."

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For much of that time, Mr. Roberts, who immigrated to Canada from Merthyr Tydfil in Wales in 1973, has been at the cutting edge of the technology, and even in his current role as chief technology officer of his third company, GaN Systems, he is showing no signs of slowing down.

"You've got to better yourself," he says from his office in Ottawa. "I'm famous, or infamous, for carrying around tonnes of paper and I also carry around a laptop.

"I am always reading papers that have been published on this topic. [As Isaac Newton said] You've got to stand on the shoulders of giants in order to see further, so I read everything, I interact with scientists at the NRC [National Research Council], I go to conferences, I give papers at conferences all around the world."

Having started as an employee of Mosaid Systems, Mr. Roberts decided to branch out on his own when his employer showed no willingness to distribute stock to the employees. So, along with four or five others, he left to found Calmos Systems in 1983.

After it was bought by Newbridge Microsystems in 1989, Mr. Roberts served as president of the Strategic Microelectronics Consortium, where he took interest in helping other ventures get off the ground.

"We had about 24-30 members at times, and I was able to get some federal government money and I handed it to the smaller companies," he says.

"PMC-Sierra became a billion-dollar company on the Nasdaq and I gave them $1.5-million of federal government money as a loan, and they've paid it back. And I gave a million dollars to Genesis Microsystems, based in Toronto, and they became a billion-dollar company on the Nasdaq."

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Mr. Roberts moved on to found SiGe Semiconductor after coming across some research at the NRC that involved experimenting with silicon-germanium technology (hence SiGe). But he eventually stumbled across something new that piqued his interest even more.

"LED lights are supposedly going to become a $26-billion business," he says, but it's not just the lighting that interests him. It's the gallium nitride, which emits the blueish-white light.

"It's about 10 times better than silicon transistors. They [gallium nitride transistors] are faster, they are lower on resistance per unit area, and they will be comparable or cheaper in price and that will be the end of silicon pod transistors and it's the beginnings of the revolution, I think."

His current company, Ottawa-based GaN Systems, is one of the leading companies experimenting with that technology. While gallium nitride technology is really only ubiquitous in LED lighting at present, Mr. Roberts is confident that it will change power conversion in a big way over the next 10 years, with its more efficient, more compact form.

"It goes into everything that you use," he says. "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."

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