UW CSE Alumnus John Torode founds IC Designs

There are three threads to John Torode's professional career: the academic thread, the commercial thread, and the thread of ties to the University of Washington's Department of Computer Science & Engineering's students and faculty. The complex and fruitful intertwining of these threads is remarkable.

Torode received a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics from MIT in 1966. He entered the University of Washington as a graduate student in Physics, receiving a Masters degree in 1969. He then transferred to our department, receiving a Masters in 1971 and a Ph.D. in 1972, supervised by Professor Ted Kehl. The topic of his dissertation was "A Microprogrammable Logic Machine." Torode then assumed a faculty position in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at UC Berkeley -- probably the first graduate of UW CSE's Ph.D. program to move on to a really front-rank academic position.

The commercial thread always has been an equal part of Torode's career. As a graduate student in Physics, Torode founded Digital Systems in 1966, a company with which he served until 1979. Digital Systems initially provided accounting services to various Seattle companies, but later turned to technology development. In 1974 (Torode's academic thread had him situated at Berkeley at the time), utilizing one of the first microprocessor chips and early floppy disk drives, Torode developed one of the first personal computers and participated in the development of CP/M, the original operating system standard for personal computers. Torode resigned his position at Berkeley in 1975 in order to devote his full attention to Digital Systems.

Torode was founding partner and CEO of Digital Microsystems, Inc., from 1979-1986. DMS designed and manufactured microcomputer-based subsystems, computers, and one of the first microprocessor-based local area networks. Originally based in Oakland, CA, DMS was sold to a British firm and grew to more than 200 employees worldwide with a sister company in England.

From 1979-1988 Torode was a member of the Board of Directors of Cyclotomics, Inc., a Berkeley, CA, engineering subsidiary of Eastman Kodak. From 1986-1991 he was a founding partner and Chairman of the Board of Ioline Corporation, a Kirkland, WA company that designed and manufactured systems for use in the computer-aided design, sign making, and garment industries. The company grew to over 70 employees with worldwide sales when the founders sold it to a group of local investors.

Torode had always maintained contact with his UW mentor, Ted Kehl. The return of Torode's focus to the Seattle area increased their interactions. Kehl had been instrumental in bringing the Very Large Scale Integrated Circuit (VLSI) revolution to the Seattle area, when in the late 1970s, Carver Mead from Caltech worked with Kehl to teach his new approach to VLSI design in a course jointly sponsored by UW and Boeing. Among the results of that course was the founding of the UW/NW VLSI Consortium, a major ARPA activity headed by Kehl with five regional leadership companies as principal participants, and also the successful engineering of Digital Equipment Corporation's MicroVAX-I processor (which was spearheaded by a team from DECwest Engineering headed by Dave Cutler, who learned VLSI design in the original UW course). Kehl's research focus turned to VLSI design, and in 1986, Torode founded a new company, IC Designs, Inc., based partly on Kehl's UW VLSI technology.

IC Designs has been a major success. The company initially provided software and fabrication services for application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs). The company evolved into designing ASICs, and specialized in timing circuits that are widely used in personal computers. As the company grew to a volume of over $30M annually, it merged with San Jose based Cypress Semiconductor, an industry leader. The University of Washington profited significantly from this merger: UW had received IC Designs stock in return for Kehl's original technology, and had invested further in IC Designs as part of its small "venture portfolio."

While Torode continued to operate the timing technology division in Kirkland, in addition to serving as Vice President of the corporation (by the way, the first time in his long industrial career that he has had a boss!), the merger created some slack in his schedule, which he chose to invest in our Computer Engineering undergraduates. Kehl had established an undergraduate seminar in VLSI design. Kehl's concept was that teams of students would undertake useful designs rather than toys, and that each team would be guided by a professional mentor from the semiconductor industry. Torode took the bait. For several quarters, he has served as the active mentor to one of the class teams, meeting with them frequently, both on campus and at Cypress / IC Designs, to guide their design process. A number of these students also do co-ops or internships at Cypress / IC Designs.

John Torode: A successful academic. A successful high tech entrepreneur in both the software and semiconductor industries. (A finalist, by the way, in the first Washington State "High Technology Entrepreneur of the Year" award competition in 1989.) Founder of four companies, including one, IC Designs, that became a national and international success based partly upon UW technology. And a person who has invested his time in UW Computer Engineering undergraduates as the mentor in a highly innovative VLSI design course, taking many of these students under his wing subsequent to the course. For all of these reasons, John Torode was named the 1996 University of Washington College of Engineering Distinguished Alumnus.