Advancing Basic Science for Humanity
Robert W. Conn
Robert Conn is president and CEO of The Kavli Foundation, which is dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity, promoting public understanding of scientific research, and supporting scientists and their work. His leadership in education, research, the private sector and science philanthropy have helped advance the enterprise of science for decades.
As a leading researcher in plasma physics, fusion energy, energy policy and materials science, he pioneered the study of fusion power systems design, identifying the major physics and engineering challenges facing the development of practical fusion energy. In higher education, he transformed the University of California at San Diego’s Division of Engineering, first to a School of Engineering and then to the endowed Irwin and Joan Jacobs School of Engineering – all leading to its rise in the rankings from 43 in 1993 to 11 in 2003. Today, the Jacobs School is ranked in the top 10 by US News and World Report. As chair of the UC engineering deans council in the late 1990s, he led a statewide effort to catalyze what became the UC Engineering Initiative, leading to a 30% growth of engineering faculty and students across the entire UC system.
In the private sector, Dr. Conn co-founded Plasma and Materials Technologies, Inc. in 1986 and served as board chair and chief technology officer until 1994. The company made transformative contributions to plasma-based manufacturing of semiconductors at the critical stage and time (late 1980s to early 1990s) when feature sizes on chips became smaller than one micron, and wholly new very low-pressure plasma etching and deposition equipment was required. The company was successful, had its initial public offering on NASDAQ in 1995, and was later acquired by Lam Research Corp. Beginning in 2002, after leaving UC San Diego, he became a managing director at Enterprise Partners Venture Capital, then the largest VC firm in San Diego. He led investments in high technology and software companies, mainly in the semiconductor and communications industries, and served on those company’s boards. Of the nine investments he led in startup companies, seven were acquired and produced positive returns.
In philanthropy, Dr. Conn has led The Kavli Foundation through an extraordinary period of growth in resources, programs and reputation. The foundation’s largest program supports science through endowed Kavli Institutes in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience and theoretical physics at universities globally. Under his leadership, the foundation played a critical and catalytic role when it established and supported the Brain Activity Mapping project in 2012. That effort was the central precursor leading to President Obama’s announcement of the U.S. BRAIN Initiative in 2013. The Brain Initiative is the first government-funded science grand challenge problem of the 21st century and an example of the crucial role of federal and philanthropic partnerships.
In late 2011, Dr. Conn, together with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, conceived of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. Joined in 2012 by four other foundations – the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Simons and Sloan foundations, and the Research Corp. for Science Advancement – the Alliance was formally established in 2013 and began operations in 2014. Its membership has grown from the founding five to more than thirty members, all actively engaged in supporting science and in helping make the case to new philanthropists that philanthropic support for science writ large – meaning science, engineering, technology and medicine – is critical.
Dr. Conn is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Nuclear Society. Awards for his research contributions and academic leadership include the Ernest O. Lawrence Memorial Award from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Curtis W. McGraw Research Award of the American Association of Engineering Education, the Distinguished Associate Award of the DOE, the Distinguished Alumni Award of the California Institute of Technology, and the Roger Revelle Medal of the University of California, San Diego. He has served on committees for the U.S. Government, the National Academies, and several national laboratories. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, elected in 1987He received his B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Pratt Institute, and his M.S. in Mechanical Engineering and Ph.D. in Engineering Science from the California Institute of Technology.