Once every generation there’s an extraordinary person who comes along, somebody with prodigious gifts, somebody who could excel in any field and does, but sees these talents as a call to higher service.
At the time of our nation’s founding Thomas Jefferson was such a person: an inventor, musician, author and poet, botanist, farmer, statesman, institution builder. As Russ Hancock likes to say: Bill Miller is Silicon Valley’s Thomas Jefferson.
He is that rare multiple threat: teacher, distinguished scientist and scholar, conservationist, innovator and entrepreneur, founder of companies, venture capitalist, founder of non-profits, institution builder, advisor to governments, and a tireless champion of Silicon Valley.
He was raised in Indiana and served in the army in World War II. He received his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D.s all in physics from Purdue University. Purdue wasn’t to forget Bill, however, as the University awarded him with an honorary doctorate in 1972. He also married the lovely Patty Smith while at Purdue. Bill first joined the Argonne National Laboratory where his research contributed to the development of the modern computer.
He was recruited to Stanford in 1964. He was the last person hired by Frederick Terman, the legendary Dean of Engineering who had earlier mentored David Packard and Bill Hewlett and championed their fledgling company. Thus began Bill’s lifelong association not only with Stanford, but with the growing phenomenon that would later be called “Silicon Valley.”
His academic achievements at Stanford are extensive but, you must remember that “professor” is only one of the hats Bill wears. Bill was to play a crucial role at Stanford over five decades and he is not yet finished.
First of all, Bill was flagrantly multi-disciplinary—an early poster child for what has become one of Stanford’s great claims to fame, the multi-disciplinary approach to scientific inquiry. Though he was hired as a physicist and computer scientist, before long he was holding appointments all over campus: in the Business School, the School of Engineering, the Linear Accelerator, the Institute for International Studies, and the Asia-Pacific Research Center.
Bill also played a large role in the creation of the modern venture capital industry, as a founding partner and advisor to The Mayfield Fund in 1969. But he has been much more than just an investor. He has shaped the course of the corporations that have defined our economy, serving on the boards of Signetics, Fireman’s Fund Insurance, Wells Fargo Bank, PG&E, Varian, Borland Software, Nanostellar and many others.
He became Stanford’s first Vice President for Research, and then Provost, and here is the second thing we must say about his service to Stanford: he had unusual gifts for institution building. His strength, all agree, is bringing people together, building bridges across departments, creating new centers, linking scholarship with industry, lining up incentives, bringing in new funders.
But here is the final thing we’ll say about his service to Stanford: more than most, Professor Miller had a case of the itchy feet. You see, he thinks of universities as a place where you might keep one foot, but never both feet. The other foot, he was convinced, needed to be in private industry, or the public sector, or the non-profit community. The university, in his view, suffers from the ivory tower syndrome, and he set out to fix it.
So Bill stepped down from the Provost position to make a mark in a few other places. He became President and CEO of SRI, where he opened that institute up to the Pacific Rim, created their spin-out and commercialization program, and established the Sarnoff Corporation as a for-profit subsidiary.