Voices: Dennis Monticelli, champion of analog innovation

-October 30, 2008

Dennis M Monticelli in 1974 received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of California—Santa Barbara and joined National Semiconductor Corp upon graduation. In 2000, he became a National fellow. Monticelli currently serves as chief technologist for the company’s analog-products group. He holds 20 patents in circuit design. EDN recently had the chance to interview Monticelli.

Do you see foreign engineers as less innovative?

The ability to innovate has nothing to do with DNA, but culture definitely plays a role. Some cultures encourage risk taking and thinking differently from the pack more so than others. If a global company creates a strong internal culture of innovation, it will supersede any differences among foreign cultures with regard to fostering innovation.

What can a company do to foster global innovation?

Build a strong internal culture that values innovation. The innovation subculture has to permeate the company’s overall culture and be closely coupled to the entire risk/reward system. There also has to be a specific infrastructure to support it in the form of allowing personal time apart from day-to-day work and a separate budget for research and experimentation. It needs to be OK to fail within that infrastructure. You openly celebrate the wins, which are probably well less than 50%, and reap useful lessons from the failures.

Is innovation primarily a collaborative effort?

It is a collaborative effort because it is now a bigger industry and there are so many players. Nowadays, we are large, diversified, and worldwide, so companies need a process for innovation so they can engage as many people as possible.

Is it harder to do analog innovation?

Analog has more variables associated with it, and that [fact] permeates the way you deal with it. It is just not as deterministic as digital. You can break up something deterministic into its constituent tasks and execute each one and get to the finish line. With analog, there are so many variables you need to do things a little differently, particularly with the innovation process where there is inherently risk involved. There will be failure. There should be failure. You have to find a way to accommodate the failure in positive ways so you don’t discourage people. Companies, without realizing it, will sock you if you fail. That’s why you need to create a subculture of innovation that says “OK, in a percentage of my time or resources, I can do this [task]; it’s OK to fail within that bucket. If I fail, even utterly, I don’t tank the company.” You are expected to succeed a percentage of the time . . . everyone understands it is a minority of the time you come up with something good, but the upside is great when you do. It doesn’t have to be a technical innovation; there is plenty of opportunity for innovation all through the business.

Does the lack of effective IP (intellectual-property) protection in China make innovation better or worse?

It is very difficult to protect both patented IP and trade secrets within China. It will get better over time as China learns to value its own IP, but, for now, wisdom dictates that sensitive IP should not go there, and yes, this [belief] constrains the innovation potential of that region on behalf of the global company.

Is it worth it to take out worldwide patents?

Yes, it is worth it to take out worldwide patents, but it should be determined on a case-by-case basis. Protection of IP in the worldwide court systems is OK, except for areas of the developing world where IP is simply not highly valued, yet. By the way, there is no patent system in the world that gets an A on my report card, and most struggle to earn a B.

Are there language and culture barriers in global innovation?

Language is not a barrier. Culture is not a barrier, either, provided that the company has a strong internal culture of innovation that overrides any other biases—perceived or real.

Is there anything our government could do to help global innovation?

The best thing this government could do for innovation is to keep the R&D tax credit and liberalize the H1-B [visa] policy to the extent that, if a foreign engineer gets into an institution of higher learning, that person should automatically be given H1-B status.

What is the secret to your record of innovation?

I’m pleased to say that there is a whole list of talented engineers and scientists at National who have passed me by in the patent count. But there is no great secret to it—just an ability to identify promising new areas and a willingness to commit myself to attacking the most challenging technical problems in those new areas. Out of that foundation comes the opportunity to make useful inventions.

What countries do you see as promising places to foster innovation?

Western Europe and the United States are still No. 1, but the developing regions are catching up. You can see that in the growth of quality research papers coming out of the universities there.

Was innovation a driver in National’s decision to open a design center in Milan, Italy?

Definitely. National opens design centers where there are pools of talented engineers with skill sets that align with our analog- and mixed-signal direction. Milan clearly followed that formula. We do not go to a region with the notion that engineers will simply be cheaper there; we are always after quality over quantity.

Do you look at the global availability of universities as part of your innovation program?

Absolutely, just like we do with the design centers. We go wherever the skill set is, and we work with them on research. We are also fond of picking them close to our design centers because they can also serve to feed us students. And we can support the university technically because we are physically close.

Is it harder to find analog talent overseas?

Yes and no. In years back, it was easier to find analog people in Europe. The United States went through a period in the late 1980s and most of the ’90s where we were distracted by the PC platform, and curricula swung over to digital. Analog wasn’t being taught. In Europe, it was automotive, telecom, and industrial, and all those have a higher analog content than PCs. The wireless revolution turned it around in the United States. That [revolution is] what made analog fashionable again. From there, we started getting broader analog curricula—not just the RF—so, right now, the US schools are in pretty good shape. If you go to Asia, you find a definite fall off in analog- and mixed-signal capability. There is some advanced stuff going on out there, but analog- and mixed-signal [technology] is not well-developed. There are little oases of activity here and there, but it’s not a place where you would want to set up a major research effort.

Does National go overseas primarily for cost reasons?

Under the manufacturing business model that was the original basis for National, you go there for cost. Under the new National, you are going there for innovation. You are going for the access to the best people wherever they want to live.

What other factors have helped innovation?

Part of the infrastructure that we have for innovation is also in making mask sets and silicon available for doing experiments. If you want to fund innovation, you have to not only set aside people’s time, which is the most precious thing of all, but also deal with the custom assets and the cost of engineering lots. We have … the planet program that is an internal shuttle system. We have an annual schedule for these lots, so you can have your experiment slotted, and everyone shares in the cost through a central R&D-funding mechanism. Everyone shares a reticle, so you can have 20 or more experiments running on a common set of tooling, which reduces the cost by the ratio of the number of experiments.

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