The father of the modern cell phone paid a call on UC San Diego on Wednesday evening, Nov. 13. Dr. Irwin Jacobs, the billionaire co-founder of Qualcomm, gave a 90-minute talk and Q&A session as part of the 50th anniversary of John Muir College, where Jacobs was a professor of computer science and engineering from 1966 to 1972.
“It has been wonderful to see the development of the campus and, in particular, of our first college here,” Jacobs told the crowd of 150 admirers, many of whom were current UC San Diego students, in the Student Services Center.
By the way, if you recognize Jacobs’ name but not his connection to Qualcomm, it may be because it appears on the Jacobs Medical Center, the Jacobs School of Engineering, the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Center for La Jolla Playhouse and many other buildings that he contributed millions to constructing. (In 2011, The San Diego Union-Tribune dubbed him “Philanthropist-in-Chief.”)
Appearing alongside his old pal and fellow John Muir co-founder Dr. Stuart Brody, the 84-year-old La Jolla Shores resident appeared dapper and cheerful as he advised today’s job-seekers to start their own technology companies instead of joining established ones. That way, Jacobs said, “you have to do every job in that company. And if you think about every job as something you can do in an innovative way, then, as you get a little bit further, you can find the person who’s going to grow into that role and continue to innovate.”
In 1985, when Jacobs became the first chairman and CEO of Qualcomm — which he thought would “be lucky to grow to 100 employees” — he said he pondered how many cell phones might one day permeate the world. He’d divide that number by two and then two again, figuring in all the impediments to market saturation. Then he figured in how many phones might use Qualcomm’s technology and divided by a few more twos to get what he considered a reasonable business plan.
“Of course, what happened is all those twos went back in again!” Jacobs said. (Last week, Jacobs’ former little startup rejected a takeover bid of $103 billion as too low.)
Jacobs started Qualcomm, he said, with very little business experience, basically to prove a point to his John Muir students. “For many years, I’d been telling students that all this theory I was teaching would be useful in the real world,” he said. “So my rationale was that this was a way to demonstrate that it would be useful.”
Jacobs struck the most emotional chords when he contrasted today’s university with the one he arrived at from MIT in 1966. UCSD — still informally known as UCLJ, for “La Jolla” — was only allowed to have an applied electrophysics program at the time.
“Apparently, there had been some agreement — so I understood — with UC Berkeley and UCLA that there wouldn’t be competitive engineering here,” Jacobs said. “To have a major engineering school of this size was not something that was obviously going to happen.”
When Brody asked Jacobs about La Jolla — which Brody called a former “intellectual, cultural and culinary” desert that was only for “the newlyweds and the living dead” — Jacobs laughed, then recalled what happened whenever he and his wife Joan used to go walking in La Jolla Shores after their four sons had gone to bed.
“Many nights, a police car would show up and trail us, because who would be out walking at night in La Jolla?!” he recalled.