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Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

Richard Newton, engineering dean and technology visionary, dies at 55

– A. Richard Newton, professor and dean of the College of Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, a pioneer in electronic design automation and integrated circuit design, and a visionary leader in the technology industry, has died. He was 55.

Richard Newton
A. Richard Newton (Bart Nagel photo)

Newton died Tuesday, Jan. 2, 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 UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. "Dynamic and entrepreneurial, he understood the power of engineering and technology in entirely new ways, and he connected them to addressing society's toughest problems. 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 UC Berkeley, for California, and indeed for the international engineering community."

Memorial donations
Memorial gifts may be made to the Dean A. Richard Newton Memorial Fund, an endowment to benefit the Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology.

Feb. 11 celebration
The College of Engineering will host "Celebrating the Life of Richard Newton" on campus from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Learn more, or register online to attend.

Richard Blum, San Francisco financier, philanthropist and vice chair of the UC Regents, credits Newton for helping develop the concept for the Richard C. 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. "Technology had mainly benefited developed countries. His death is a huge loss for UC and for society."

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, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer sciences, kickstarted 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 its design process, virtually every electronic chip developed in the world today uses SPICE or one of its derivatives.

From 1973 to 1975, while still a student in Australia, Newton worked with Pederson on an early version of SPICE, and he became a major force behind the SPICE project when he joined Pederson at Berkeley in 1975. Pederson, regarded by Newton as a mentor, recognized Newton's talent and recruited him to UC Berkeley where 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 UC Berkeley 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 UC Berkeley. Newton 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.

Orville Schell, UC Berkeley dean of the Graduate School of Journalism and a close family friend of Newton's, said Newton "was one of those most rare of men who was as kind and collegial as he was intelligent, energetic and competitive. His death leaves an emptiness of indescribable proportions."

One of Newton's most prominent legacies will be the UC 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 critical 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, UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences and a close friend and business partner of Newton's.

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, or 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 with 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.

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 for 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. In 2004, he was named to the National Academy of Engineering, and in 2006, he was named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is 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 Eastern and Western philosophy, formed during his years as a student at UC Berkeley. He also enjoyed poetry, painting and hiking in the outdoors.

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

A celebration of Newton's life will be held later this semester. Information about it will be posted online at: http://www.coe.berkeley.edu when available.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations in Newton's memory be made to support the Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology. These gifts will go towards an endowed fund to be named for Newton. Checks made out to the UC Berkeley Foundation should be mailed to the Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology, QB3 Institute, UC Berkeley, 227 Hildebrand Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-3220.