UC Berkeley News


College of Engineering dean A. Richard Newton dies at 55
The visionary technologist, his colleagues recall, was an astute businessman as well as a brilliant academician

| 10 January 2007

A. Richard Newton, professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and dean of the College of Engineering, died on Jan. 2 in San Francisco. He was 55.

A. Richard Newton (Bart Nagel photo)

Newton, a pioneer in electronic design automation and integrated-circuit design and a visionary leader in the technology industry, died at the UC San Francisco Medical Center less than two months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Newton's eloquence and magnetism drew widespread attention to his ideas for the role engineering could play in tackling some of society's most difficult challenges, particularly those of developing nations.

"Rich Newton was a man of incomparable vision," said Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. "Dynamic and entrepreneurial, he understood the power of engineering and technology in entirely new ways. The vibrancy of his thinking shaped my own ideas about what engineering is and what it can be. This is an enormous loss for us at Berkeley, for California, and indeed for the international engineering community."

Up the academic ladder

Newton was born July 1, 1951, in Melbourne, Australia. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Melbourne in 1973 and 1975, respectively.

A fortuitous meeting in the early 1970s with Donald Pederson, a Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, kick-started Newton's lifelong interest in electronic design automation (EDA). Pederson, who died in 2004, spearheaded the development of SPICE (Simulation Program with Integrated Circuit Emphasis), a computer-simulation program that enables engineers to analyze and design complex electronic circuitry with speed and accuracy. At critical stages during the design process, virtually every electronic chip developed in the world today uses SPICE or one of its derivatives.

Rich Newton remembered
"Rich was as kind and collegial as he was intelligent, energetic, and competitive. As a friend, husband, father, dean, and colleague he was that rarity, a decent and estimable human being in every way. His death leaves an emptiness of indescribable proportions."
- Orville Schell, dean Graduate School of Journalism

"Rich was always ahead of the curve, a 'why not?' kind of guy. At the same time, he was very disciplined, very good at putting action behind the words."
- Paul Gray, professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer sciences and Newton's predecessor as dean of the College of Engineering

"In a university full of stars and innovators, Rich Newton stood apart and above. His ability to reach out and relate to students made us wish that all our professors and deans could be Newtons."
- Misha Leybovich ASUC President, 2004-05

"His students and colleagues were so intrigued by his visionary talks and initiatives that they would spend endless hours trying to connect the dots and help Richard to make his vision come true."
- Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli, professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences

"He was just full of ideas, and they were all good."
- Richard Blum vice chair, UC Regents

From 1973 to 1975, while still a student in Australia, Newton worked with Pederson on an early version of SPICE, becoming a significant force behind the project after joining Pederson at Berkeley in 1975. Here he continued his work in circuit simulation and design automation as a Ph.D. student.

"Newton was one of the major forces behind the development of the EDA field," said Paul Gray, professor of electrical engineering and former executive vice chancellor and provost, who preceded Newton as dean of engineering. "The semiconductor industry wouldn't exist today if it weren't for these simulation tools."

In 1978, Newton earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer sciences from Berkeley and was appointed to the engineering faculty later that year.

"It is rare for a research university to hire its own grad students immediately following their graduate work, but Rich was such a brilliant guy, we knew we couldn't let him get away," said Gray.

Newton quickly scaled the academic ladder, going from assistant professor in 1978 to associate professor in 1982. In 1985 he was promoted to full professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences. Newton served as chair of the department from 1999 to 2000, and was dean of the College of Engineering and the Roy W. Carlson Professor of Engineering from 2000 until his death.

One of Newton's most prominent legacies will be the Berkeley-based Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), one of four California Institutes for Science and Innovation. Newton was the driving force behind the founding of CITRIS, established in 2001 to develop the next generation of technologies that will be essential to sustaining California's economic growth and global competitiveness and to solving society's most critical needs.

"He always had the interest of society in his mind, so much so that CITRIS can be considered his brainchild," said Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli, professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and a close friend and business partner of Newton's.

Because of his commitment to the social application of technology, Newton is credited by financier, philanthropist, and UC Regents vice chair Richard Blum with helping to develop the concept for the Richard Blum Center for Developing Economies, a major multidisciplinary campus initiative launched in April 2006 with a $15 million gift from Blum.

"It was his idea that we should use UC's innovative technologies to help developing countries," said Blum. "His death is a huge loss for UC and for society."

'.he was unstoppable.'

In recent years, Newton became a champion of synthetic biology, seeing the emerging field as the application of engineering principles to the life sciences. He played a major role in the establishment of the Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology, as well as of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), launched last year with a $16 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

"The center wouldn't have happened without Rich," said SynBERC director Jay Keasling, professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering. "He was an incredible supporter and an excellent spokesperson for the center. He could make beautiful analogies between what has happened in high technology and what is now happening in synthetic biology. One of the greatest things about Rich was that he was unstoppable. He was just larger than life, and so enthusiastic. You couldn't beat him down."

From 1998 to 2002, Newton served as the founding director of the MARCO/DARPA Gigascale Silicon Research Center (GSRC), a major private-public partnership between the U.S. government and the semiconductor industry that funds and coordinates long-range research at a dozen major U.S. universities and involves many industrial collaborators.

Students were as inspired by Newton as his colleagues and industry partners were. Here he is seen co-leading a 2004 engineering course that one observer called "a tour de force of multidisciplinary discourse."(Bart Nagel photo)
In addition to his academic role, Newton played an active role in industry, helping to found a number of design-technology companies, including SDA Systems (now Cadence Design Systems), Synopsys, PIE Design Systems (now part of Cadence), Simplex Solutions, and Crossbow.

"He had an unmatched capability of marrying technical insights with industrial needs," said Sangiovanni-Vincentelli. "He articulated the EDA roadmap 30 years ago, and almost all he said actually happened."

Beginning in 1988, Newton advised several venture-capital firms, including the Mayfield Fund and Tallwood Venture Capital, where he contributed both to the evaluation and early-stage development of more than two dozen new companies.

"Newton had an astute business mind, something you wouldn't necessarily expect from an academic," said Dado Banatao, managing partner of Tallwood and chair of the College of Engineering advisory board. "There are a lot of visionaries out there, but when you have a visionary technologist, you understand how technologies can be applied to solve the right problems. Newton was a visionary technologist."

Newton was a strong advocate of promoting women in engineering, and while he was dean, the number of women on the faculty at the College of Engineering nearly doubled, from 15 in 2000 to 27 today. Newton also served on the board of trustees of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, which provides resources and programs to help industry, academia, and government recruit, retain, and develop women leaders in high-technology careers.

Newton earned numerous awards throughout his career, including the 2003 Phil Kaufman Award, the highest recognition given for research and entrepreneurial contributions to the electronic-design-automation industry. He was named to the National Academy of Engineering in 2004 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences two years later. He was also a member of the Association for Computing Machinery and a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Outside of academia and research, Newton maintained a strong interest in spirituality and philosophy, formed during his years as a student at Berkeley. He also enjoyed poetry, painting, and hiking.

Newton is survived by his wife, Petra Michel, and daughters Neris and Amrita, ages 13 and 10, respectively, of Orinda, as well as by his mother, Bette Newton; a sister, Jennifer Hayes; and two brothers, Robert and Michael Newton, all of Greater Melbourne, Australia.

The family has requested that donations in Newton's memory be made to support the Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology. These gifts will go toward an endowed fund to be named for Newton. Those wishing to contribute should make checks out to the UC Berkeley Foundation and mail them to the Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology, QB3 Institute, UC Berkeley, 227 Hildebrand Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-3220. To make an online contribution, follow the link at givetocal.berkeley.edu.