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Putting a Fingerprint on Electrical Engineering

Cogent co-founder Ming Hsieh, BSEE ’83, MSEE ’84, gives $35 million gift to name the Viterbi School’s oldest and largest department

October 22, 2006 — On the threshold of a new century of engineering, 100 years after USC offered its first electrical engineering class, the Viterbi School of Engineering is naming its oldest and largest department the USC Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering.

Ming Hsieh, BSEE ’83, MSEE ’84, is co-founder, president, CEO and chairman of the board of Cogent, Inc., one of the top providers of fingerprint identification systems in the United States.  His generous gift of $35 million is the largest ever to name an engineering department in the United States. His endowment will set the course for electrical engineering’s continued expansion into new realms of human invention.  As the field continues to grow, so too will the quality of its academic standards and the ability of its graduates to meet the challenges of tomorrow’s global community. 
Ming Hsieh, BSEE '83, MSEE '84, stands on the helipad atop his Cogent, Inc. headquarters in South Pasadena, CA.

Hundreds of faculty, staff, students, alumni and campus luminaries will join Viterbi School Dean Yannis C. Yortsos and USC President Steven B. Sample on October 23 to honor Hsieh, whose entrepreneurial ingenuity has helped to make the world a safer place. The timing of the gift could not have been better, according to Yortsos. Hsieh’s contribution caps the Viterbi School’s centennial celebration and pushes its $300-million fundraising initiative nearly to the top.

“One hundred years ago, USC offered its first engineering courses in electrical engineering.  It is only fitting that Ming Hsieh, an electrical engineering alumnus, is launching the second century of USC engineering with a magnificent gift. I am looking forward to working with him more closely in the coming years to build our electrical engineering curriculum into a program that will meet the challenges and demands of global engineering in the 21st century,” said Yortsos.  “I am grateful to the Viterbi School’s loyal alumni. Their support is key to raising the school’s endowment and helping us continue our ascent to national and global prominence in an environment that grows more competitive each day.”

"Ming's name adds luster to a department that is already highly distinguished.  He is a great Trojan who cares deeply about educating future engineers, and we are grateful that he is investing not only in his alma mater but ultimately in this nation," said USC President Steven B. Sample, who as an electrical engineer is also a tenured faculty member in the department.

The gift will be used to strengthen the School’s ability to recruit and hire world-class faculty, as well as attract top graduate and undergraduate students. Part of the naming gift will be set aside for scholarships to build on USC’s reputation for excellence in research, education and community service. 

“We are so fortunate to have an engineer of Ming’s caliber on our team,” said Daniel Dapkus, chair of the electrophysics half of the USC Ming Hsieh Electrical Engineering Department.  “Ming’s knowledge of massively parallel computing architectures, high data flow management and biometric computing will have an important impact on our department and faculty, and add impetus to the directions we are headed academically in the next few years.”
EE Department Chairs Dan Dapkus (left) and Alexander "Sandy" Sawchuk (right).

“I second that sentiment,” added Alexander “Sandy” Sawchuk, chair of the systems half of the department. “The students, faculty, staff and alumni of the Department of Electrical Engineering join me in gratitude to Ming Hsieh for his very generous naming gift.  I know this gift will greatly benefit our academic and research programs, enhance our visibility and raise our stature to even higher levels, energizing many new activities.  We thank Ming for his faith and confidence in making a tangible investment in the future of electrical engineering here at USC.”

Roots of an Entrepreneur
The man responsible for this $35-million gift is a self-made entrepreneur from China who co-founded Cogent some 16 years ago.  His life in this country began with a dream, planted long before he ever left his mainland China hometown of Shenyang, in the northeastern province of Liaoning, to seek a better education and make a difference in the world.

That realization came early in Ming’s life.  In 1966, at the age of 10 and the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution, Ming and his family were forced to leave the city and go to a small village near Panjing.  His father, a well-educated man, was considered part of China’s upper middle class, as were other intellectuals, all of whom were sent to the countryside to be re-educated.
Hsieh in the lobby of Cogent, which went public in 2004. 

“After that, I didn’t have much of a formal education for the next 10 years,” Hsieh said.

In the countryside, and after school, Ming would join his father, Baoyan, who was an electrical engineer, as the senior Hsieh constructed a crude power system to bring electricity to the village. Ming was quick to learn electrical engineering and his parents noticed his keen interest in technology, so they gave him a transistor radio to tear apart and reassemble.  It wasn’t long before he was repairing TV sets, radios and anything else electronic he could get his hands on. He realized at that moment that destiny had come knocking.    

His uncle, P.Y. Hsieh, had left China and earned an M.S. in mechanical engineering at USC in 1952, fueling Ming’s aspirations to follow.  In 1980, after two years of college at the South China Institute of Technology, now known as the South China University of Technology, in Guangzhou, Ming Hsieh used the inheritance that his grandparents in Taiwan had left him to emigrate and enroll in USC’s engineering program. He was a 24-year-old transfer student.

Electronics 201
Sitting in his first electronic circuit design class at USC — Engineering 201 — Ming Hsieh remembers John Choma, former chair of the electrophysics side of EE.  Choma was a sharp-tongued, exacting professor who had difficulty, nonetheless, pronouncing Hsieh’s name.  Each time he called on Hsieh, Choma would spell out his name. 

“What do you think about this, Mr. H-S-I-E-H,” he would roar across the classroom.  Ming Hsieh would answer in his usual soft-spoken voice, a bit unsure of how Choma would react, but confident that whatever he said, this crusty engineer knew a lot more about electronics than he did.    

“I knew he didn’t know how to pronounce it,” said Hsieh good-naturedly during an interview in the South Pasadena offices of Cogent.  “It didn’t matter.  I wanted to learn. But that was a very difficult class and he was one of the very best teachers. On our midterm, he gave us five questions to answer and I only finished one and a half.  I think I went home and cried all day about that.”

Twenty-five years later, Choma still remembers the student who exhibited so much determination and creativity. 

“Mr. Hsieh is a paradigm of the academic excellence my colleagues and I work very hard to foster in Viterbi School students,” Choma said.  “The legacy of his excellence does not stem merely from his ability to provide USC electrical engineering with the generous financial support for which we shall be eternally appreciative.  Rather, it stems from the
John Choma, one of Hsieh's most memorable former EE professors.
act that as a diligent student, he mastered very fundamental, and often theoretically dry, concepts, gained an insightful understanding of these fundamental issues, and later used his assimilated understanding to innovate new technologies that have redefined the state of the engineering art, in this case, in the arena of massively parallel computing architectures.

“In effect, Mr. Hsieh reaffirms a personal belief I have had for much of my professional career: that the reputation of an academic department is sustained, not so much by old codgers like me, but by the creativity of the students we produce.”

Hsieh did well as an undergraduate, making friends with his classmates and building a network that proved invaluable to his later success.  He was excited about using computers for the first time, but frustrated at how slow they performed. He caught on to the exam taking with lightning speed and earned his B.S. degree in electrical engineering in 1983. One year later, he completed his M.S. degree.  His parents, Baoyan and Sun, who stayed in China, wanted him to continue on for a Ph.D., but Ming knew it was time to get a job and learn more about engineering in the real world.

“They never forgave me for not finishing my Ph.D.,” he laughed, “but I thought that after I learned all of my courses and learned some engineering techniques, I would go into industry and understand more about how things worked and what field I wanted to go into.”

He appeased them at first by promising to return to graduate school a few years later, after working for a while.  After interviewing for several positions, he landed a job at International Rectifier, based in El Segundo, Calif., and went to work as a circuit designer for a leader in power management technology.

The Young Apprentice
Hsieh wanted to learn digital circuit design from start to finish. “That is how you transfer your theoretical training into management,” he said.  “Because the company was mid-sized [in the 1980s], you literally had to do everything yourself if you were a design engineer, so I had to follow the entire process and learn to design circuits all on my own.”

The hours were grueling, he remembers, but the training was absolutely essential. The skills he had acquired as a boy alongside his father and his uncle, who was now an engineer at TRW, came in handy. But after two and a half years at International Rectifier, it was time to strike it on his own.  

“USC instilled an entrepreneurial spirit in me,” he said.  “That is one of the greatest, most unique aspects about the Viterbi School.  There is a heritage of entrepreneurship there that you don’t find at other universities.  Our engineering courses really brought students together, so that we could talk about our ideas and brainstorm about innovative ways of doing something better. I met a lot of students with that entrepreneurial drive and I learned how to start a business from them while I was still in college.”
Hsieh holds up his customized ID chip.

Using those USC connections, Hsieh formed his first company in 1987, AMAX Information Technologies, with several USC classmates: Jason Lo, BSEE ’83, Jonathan Jiang, BSEE ’83, who had been designing ASIC (application specific integrated circuit) chips at TRW, and Archie Yew, also a USC graduate.  The company specialized in servers, storage systems and other hardware, but it wasn’t long before Ming realized that, in addition to hardware and software, he needed to develop a product in order to become a commercial success. 

One of his USC friends who had gone back to China after graduation returned to the U.S. and approached him with an idea to put thousands of fingerprints on a computer chip. At the time, computerized fingerprint identification was a specialized and limited field. Three companies dominated the market, but they only offered semi-automated systems.  Hsieh knew that he would have to design a fully automated, high-speed system and customized software to match. 

In 1990, Hsieh and Archie Yew co-founded Cogent, Inc., and within six months, had signed their first contract – a $16 million, four-year contract – with the Los Angeles County Department of Social Services and EDS to develop a high-speed biometric fingerprint identification system to prevent welfare fraud.

A Breakthrough In Technology  
In the mid-1990s, Cogent reached a technological breakthrough by applying data flow computing for high-speed biometric comparisons. The technology relied on proprietary fingerprint biometrics software and programmable matching accelerator servers. Cogent’s technology got the attention of law enforcement agencies and governments, and the company picked up contracts to develop real-time ID systems for immigration, voter registration, asylum, citizen benefits/rights, citizen identification, driver’s licenses and criminal investigations.

Today, Cogent is one of the world's premier providers of automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS) for law enforcement, civil governmental agencies and commercial applications worldwide.  The company went public in 2004 and provides the technology used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for real-time identification to expedite the entry/exist process for travelers around the world who are entering the U.S.  This system evolved from an initial border control system in the mid-1990s to supporting all VISA checks from embassies and consulates worldwide, as well as all air, land and seaports in the United States.

Cogent has become the leader in real-time biometric identification, providing a voter identification system for Venezuela in 2004 whereby identity was determined in real-time at more than 12,000 polling locations across the country.  In 2005, Cogent was selected by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to provide its new real-time identification system to support criminal, civil and border control identifications.  Cogent also provided an AFIS for the County of Los Angeles that serves 88 cities in L.A. County with booking identification, crime scene identification and mobile identification capabilities that have become a model for law enforcement agencies worldwide.

Cogent has begun to enjoy some national exposure in recent years. Business Week magazine ranked it number one in its “Best Small Companies 2005” special issue.  Hsieh was in the spotlight last year, too, as a national finalist in Computer World’s honors program in the category of business and related services. Earlier this year, he was awarded the USC Viterbi School's Mark A. Stevens Distinguished Alumni Award.  He also won Ernst and Young’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for greater Los Angeles in the category of technology and services.
A complete fingerprint, voice and facial ID system on a single ASIC chip.

Hsieh makes his home in Pasadena, near Cogent headquarters. He travels extensively to company offices in the U.S. and worldwide, but still finds time to enjoy his family. His parents live nearby and often visit Hsieh, his wife and their youngest daughter, Tiffany, 15, who attends Westridge High School. Hsieh’s oldest daughter, Pauline, 18, is a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

As he looks ahead to the future of his company, Ming Hsieh sees a broader range of applications for his technology and many more challenges. 

“The world is changing and it’s even more important today to have automated ID systems,” he said. “The company is headed in a new direction right now with ANP Technologies, Inc., which wants to develop a low-cost biological detection system. It’s an interesting departure from our previous contracts, but it’s the ultimate results that we take pride in.  I sleep easier at night knowing that Cogent is making the world a safer place to live in.”