Indian American scientist Gurtej Sandhu, of Boise, Idaho, has racked up 1,299 U.S. patents by the latest count. The seventh-most of anyone. In the world. In all time.
Sandhu, who was born in London to parents from India, 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, the Idaho Statesman reported.
“Micron, which was No. 18 on the list of (memory) companies, their vision was to be No. 1 in the world,” he said in the report.
Though weary Micron would fail in its quest, a professor encouraged him, saying Sandhu would be put in a box at Texas Instruments because you lack experience, but at Micron he would have freedom to solve all kinds of engineering problems, the report said.
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, the publication said.
Micron would own those patents, but Sandhu would receive credit for them and share $1,000 bonuses (now $2,000) for each one, according to the report.
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, it said.
The Indian American engineer began to focus on stacking layers of two-dimensional memory chips atop one another. Stacking, still a work in progress, demands new processes to make it effective and affordable, it 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, it added.
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, according to the report.
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, it noted.
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.
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 in the report.
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, it said.
“The reality is there is no place in the world, no society, where a minority does not feel uncomfortable,” he told the publication. “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.”
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, the report said.
Sandhu sees that as cause for celebration. He notes that Micron’s past competitors were usually government-subsidized, while Micron was not, the publication said.
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, the report said.
For Sandhu, that means more patents, it added. “A few years ago I passed Edison, right? So people started making noise,” he told the publication. “That’s my reward. Sitting in Boise, Idaho, and working for Micron, and everybody in the world is using your patent, using things you came up with.”