Collaborator in Chief

By Lori Brandt, Engineering Communications

Irvine, CA, June 28th, 2013 -- G.P. Li vividly remembers his family being the first in his Taiwanese neighborhood to buy a television set so they could watch the Americans land on the moon. At 13, he was impressed and inspired. “America was the land of opportunity, so far ahead than any other country in terms of science, technology and infrastructure,” says Li. “I set my goal then and there to go to the United States and learn from the top minds of the day.”

Don't let the piles of paperwork fool you; Li has a systematic strategy for pursuing innovation. (Photo: Steve Zylius, Strategic Communications)

Li followed through, landing at UCLA, where he earned master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering. He went to work at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York as a researcher and manager of the technology group, moving up quickly and becoming one of the company’s youngest managers.

“I saw how IBM advanced knowledge and technology and how they worked with strategic partners,” says Li, who parlayed that understanding into his current role as director of UC Irvine’s Calit2. 

In the late 1980s, he was recruited to UCI by Chen Tsai, now Chancellor’s Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “I take great pride in recruiting G.P.,” says Tsai, adding that the school targeted Li for recruitment precisely because of his combined solid-state electronics expertise and corporate experience. 

“These were desirable credentials for establishing partnerships with local high-tech industries. G.P. has acquired substantial funding from various local companies to pursue research that has been important for the growth of our department and school.”

Li has served as Calit2 director for six years, the longest tenure in the institute’s 12-year history.

“G.P. possesses a unique skill set,” says Dr. Nancy Allbritton, a founder of UCI’s biomedical engineering department and now the chair of biomedical engineering at the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University. She and Li worked together to develop bio-nano medical devices. “He is able to work productively with different groups of people of varying personality types and bring them together to achieve a goal. It’s very hard to do. G.P. has great ideas and works incredibly hard.” 

Under Li’s direction, Calit2 has initiated several programs that leverage partnerships across disciplines, connect industry to faculty and students, spur innovation and benefit students. These include business incubator TechPortal;  the California Plug Load Research Center, which focuses on improving energy efficiency; the e-Health Collaboratory, which seeks to empower healthcare and wellness with technologies; and the Multidisciplinary Design Program, an undergraduate research effort in which student teams work across disciplines on creative design projects. 

Training students to become innovative future leaders who can explore technology solutions for emerging or underdeveloped markets while understating policy and user behaviors is of utmost importance to Li. He believes that a collaborative multidisciplinary research experience is the best way to teach innovation. 
“Students need to learn how to fail, and fail fast, so they can learn to succeed,” he says. “In research, there’s obstacles and failure. Students have to regroup, ask hard questions and try again. And today’s problems require a team approach. You cannot innovate when sitting in a silo.”

Li also serves as director of UCI’s Integrated Nanosystems Research Facility. The full-scale fabrication facility is devoted to micro- and nanotechnology research and development; it was founded by Li and Tsai, and two other faculty members, soon after Li’s arrival on campus.

“The INRF is a world-class facility where engineers carry out fundamental research in microtechnology and nanotechnology. It is critical to new advances for the university and local businesses,” says former engineering school Dean Nick Alexopoulos, who now serves as a vice president at the Broadcom Foundation. “Professor Li helped the INRF become a leading force nationally and internationally.”

Li’s success is driven by his characteristic ability to reach out across disciplines and build teams. A professor with appointments in three of the Samueli School’s five engineering departments  ?  electrical engineering and computer science, biomedical engineering, and chemical engineering and materials science  ?  Li holds 24 patents and has started four companies based on his inventions, all with his students. 

But, as he has learned, there’s a big difference between being an innovator and being an entrepreneur.  

“A patent shows an invention, which is novel, creative, even doable, but does it have marketability?” says Li, whose startup companies have since folded. “The process from invention to market adoption can be many years, and requires that you know how to communicate your idea and earn an investor’s support.” 

Still inspired by the possibilities of science and technology, Li measures his own accomplishments through those of his students. He proudly states that three former students are now CEOs at self-founded, now publicly traded companies.

“I am honored to work with the people here,” says Li. “My mission is to see them succeed; that is my reward.”