Q&A with Director Spanos

­­­Professor Costas Spanos became the fourth director of CITRIS on February 1, 2014. He is Andrew S. Grove Professor and Chair of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences (EECS) and leads the Singapore-based SinBerBEST project, which focuses on improving the energy efficiency of buildings.

Costas Spanos became the fourth CITRIS Director earlier this spring.

Spanos joined the UC Berkeley faculty 25 years ago and has since served as Chair of EECS, Director of the Berkeley Microfabrication Laboratory, Associate Dean for Research, and the founding Director and CEO of the Berkeley Educational Alliance for Research in Singapore (BEARS), a UC-owned corporation in Singapore funded by the Singaporean government.

In February 2014, Gordy Slack interviewed Spanos in his light-filled EECS office on the 5th floor of Berkeley’s Cory Hall. The room overlooks San Francisco Bay and Spanos had a telescope set up in the large picture window. On a nearby shelf sat a radio-controlled sailboat, given to Spanos when he stepped down as Department Chair of EECS.

Gordy Slack: The EECS office we’re in now is just a couple of minutes from CITRIS headquarters? Are you planning to move over there?

Costas Spanos: I’ll be spending quite a bit of time there. In the next few weeks we’ll be converting a conference room in SDH so that it can serve dual use as my office.  I want to be close to the people and daily operations of CITRIS, even while I’m doing other things.

GS: How will the new position at CITRIS change your daily routine?

CS: There will be a transition period. Right now I’m running a big organization in Singapore, BEARS, and I will still have that duty for a while. This semester I’m also teaching; my classes were scheduled before the CITRIS decision was made and I can’t change that. I like teaching, but after this semester I’ll take a break from it to focus on CITRIS.

GS: CITRIS has changed a lot over the past decade. How would you like to alter its trajectory?

CS: That trajectory has been quite impressive. I like the basic structure that I see right now. The four areas we cover really represent the aims of CITRIS well: Data and Democracy, Energy, Infrastructure, and Healthcare. But I would like to see a better integration of our intellectual assets. For example, the Marvell Nanofabrication laboratory is an amazing asset. It occupies a big part of our physical space, but it also represents a huge investment, and a huge programmatic opportunity! It is the best academic facility of its type and already provides service to a large part of the community. But I think we can integrate it within CITRIS in an even more meaningful way.

Different areas of CITRIS could be more tightly integrated. Just today I had a discussion with PATH Directors Robert Horowitz and Tom West about how our work in infrastructure and their work in transportation systems have quite a bit of intellectual overlap. I’d like to exploit that and strengthen our partnerships in those areas.


The Invention Lab students bring a lot of energy to the campus.
The Invention Lab students bring a lot of energy to the campus.

GS: How about other campuses?

CS: I look forward to seeing first hand what’s happening on the other campuses and to talking with the campus directors about how best to leverage their programs.

I am certainly impressed by things happening here at Berkeley. The Invention Lab is an exciting facility, and the students bring a lot of energy. I am also impressed with the Foundry; I have been involved with a few startups and I know that to succeed you need infrastructure, mentorship, and support. The Foundry provides these.

CITRIS is getting a lot of attention. This month we had a visit by the President of the University, Janet Napolitano, and just recently we had a visit from Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and a meeting in San Francisco with the French Minister of Research and Education, Genevieve Fioraso. Minister Fioraso mentioned how well known CITRIS is in Europe. The strength of the CITRIS brand is a strong testament to my predecessors.


GS: How would you describe that brand?

CS: I’ve seen the CITRIS brand mostly from the perspective of my work in Asia. But around the world, CITRIS essentially represents the University of California and the information technology work that is happening here. Of course Berkeley is a big name in that. But everyone also knows CITRIS is a multi-campus organization and that aspect is essential to its identity. And of course, CITRIS doesn’t just represent information technology research; it is all about how that IT is being channeled for the social good. The emphasis is on the application, the context.

There are national research labs in Europe and Asia, but when it comes to an academic facility that puts technology into context and does it on a world scale and in an interdisciplinary way, CITRIS is unique.


GS: In what ways are CITRIS’s multi-campus aspect and its multi-disciplinary approach advantages?

CS: When you try to address a problem, you can pull together resources that just don’t exist in any single place. For instance, look at the collaborations between UC Berkeley engineers and UC Davis clinicians in the healthcare initiative, or the joint projects in water research among investigators at Berkeley, Davis and Merced. Or the exciting work on the cancer genome that is likely going to happen among computer scientists and health informatics experts in Davis, Berkeley and Santa Cruz. These are things you cannot find together in one place or in one discipline.

Long before CITRIS, we’d already become good at crossing disciplines in a more limited way. Within information technology, for example, people doing physical electronics, systems research, and signals were all working together. But CITRIS took the leap more than a decade ago to involve disciplines far beyond engineering. By going beyond these engineering fields, however broad, and looking at the impact that can be achieved on society, that’s what the Institute is all about. To have real impact, CITRIS is bringing technology to the humanities and social sciences, and vice versa.


GS: You’ve worked most of your career in academia, but you were at DEC for a few years after coming out of Carnegie Mellon. What role does industry have to play in CITRIS?

CS: I spent the first three years of my career in industry. And even here at Berkeley, most of my research has been supported by industrial funds, usually coming from multiple companies that would normally be competing with each other in the marketplace.

The university presents a common space where companies can contemplate the pre-competitive future that is some distance from their critical path. To do that in the context of a research powerhouse brings companies the value to explore alternate opportunities at fairly low risk. They can stay abreast of what is coming from beyond the horizon. And the arrangement brings value to the university, too. If support comes from multiple competing companies, where no one corporate agenda can steer the program, it can maintain an amazing context in which to explore those key pre-competitive problems.

That kind of industry relationship has been playing a role in CITRIS from day one. CITRIS started with matching industrial, foundation, and state funds. And it still plays a very significant role.


GS: You were director of what’s now called the Marvell Nanofabrication Lab for several years.

CS: Yes, then it was called the Berkeley Microfabrication Laboratory. That is an interesting story.  In the 1960s a lot of people started working on integrated circuits; it was a very exciting technology, but everybody assumed it was too late for universities to be involved in any important way.  They assumed all the important work in the field was going to be commercial and universities would have to just stick to the theoretical stuff. But a bunch of professors here said “not so fast. There is still so much more pre-competitive stuff to be discovered.” And they formed the Microfabrication Lab.  They also chose to break the standard academic mold; back then professors would have their own laboratories and would guard their territory jealously. But those guys decided, “No, there is an element of scale here, a critical mass that no one of us can achieve alone.” They decided to join their efforts, to share a laboratory and open it up even to those who wouldn’t have had the resources to even consider going into this area. And this clean-room user facility, now in almost its fifth decade, has been amazingly successful. It has evolved to stay ahead of some very expensive technology, and has managed to contribute tremendously. MEMS [microelectromechanical systems] were invented here. FinFET, the transistors that are mostly used today, were invented here. There are many other examples. Who knows what else will be invented here in years to come? And it has been used by hundreds of people who wouldn’t have been able to afford their own laboratory. Of course, imitation is a high compliment, and many other big universities decided to have common facilities as well; so MIT and Stanford and other big places have excellent facilities today, and we collaborate broadly with them. But with the expansion and move to the CITRIS space, the Marvell Nanolab is now the best. No question.


GS: So the model of the shared academic lab focused on technological innovation with great relevance to industry predates CITRIS. Are the Invention Lab and the Foundry built on a similar model?

CS: The Foundry is about catalyzing startups, which of course has also been an important part of what the Nanolab does. The Invention Lab is actually the same intellectual model: create a common facility, lower the barrier to entry for people to come and use it, give them support to use it, and have them come and play. In a facility like this, not only can you conduct your own experiments, but you’re also interacting with dozens of other people working around you; unexpected collaborations happen. The Invention Lab is similar, just on a different scale: it’s about 3D printing, prototyping, and giving even undergraduate students a very low barrier to come and invent. Another parallel is that the Marvell Nanolab is like the hub of a big wheel, one with many spokes that lead to other laboratories doing many different things. The Invention Lab should be viewed the same way. For example, there is a sister laboratory in the electrical engineering space called the Super Node; it is the archetypical “maker space.” This is also an invention lab but instead of specializing in 3D printing and system design it specializes in electronic hacking. So you have these complementary capabilities. We’re now starting to see student groups moving back and forth.


GS: Finally, is your telescope pointing at the Berkeley Marina?  Are you keeping an eye on a boat down there?

CS: This whole view is so amazing. But yes, the telescope is usually pointed at the marina where my boat normally is, or at the other sailors down there. I sometimes watch other people sailing when I don’t have the time to go myself.