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Where in the world is Dado Banatao?

Known as the “Father of Semi-conductor,” Dado Banatao was friends with Steve Jobs back in the day when Silicon Valley was just a “bunch of orchards.”: “In the really, really early stages of personal computers, there were a lot of tinkerers and engineers who wanted to build these computers themselves at home, so it was more like a hobby.”

In person, he is an extremely simple man, unassuming, clad in a basic button-down polo and dark trousers. With how low key he is, you would hardly be able to tell that he is a billionaire visionary based in Silicon Valley. He shies away and politely begs off talking about net worth and material assets, and instead lights up and laughs a lot when talking about his work. He is responsible for consumerizing a specific technology used exclusively back then by the US military, and today, we have it on our phones and cars and we call it GPS. According to MorphLabs CEO and co-founder Winston Damarillo, 30 percent of every computer and laptop in existence carries technology and ideas developed by this man.

Here are 10 things you should know about Dado Banatao. 

1. He who is known as the “Father of the Semi-conductor” and “Filipino Bill Gates” (he is not so fond of the latter) is the son of a farmer from Iguig, Cagayan and used to walk a dirt road to school every day. He went on to study in Ateneo de Tuguegarao, Mapua, then Stanford. 

His father first worked as a farmer, then left for Guam to become an OFW when Dado was around nine years old. He recalls that he was probably too young for it to affect him, and all he knew was that his father was not there all the time but that he would come home once a year. His favorite pasalubong? “Rubber shoes. That was fun!” He graduated valedictorian from elementary school. He left their barrio to go to Tuguegarao to attend high school, where he lived in a boarding house on weekdays and went home on weekends. “It was a little room with a basic bed and little table, and that’s where I studied every night. When I was done, I’d go to bed. It was such a simple life.” Dado was very driven at an early age, studying, reading, and doing his homework on his own even if nobody was watching over him. He loved and excelled in algebra, trigonometry, and physics, which prompted his dean to advise him become an engineer. He then moved to Manila and lived with his aunt and graduated cum laude with a degree in Electrical Engineering from Mapua. 

“I’ve always been inclined to learn more. I felt that my training in college was not sufficient,” Dado explains. While working in the US, he was accepted in a graduate study program where he could work full time and earn a salary, but at the same time study at the University of Washington at the expense of the company. “I saved for my eventual expense when I went to Stanford,” he says. He was not on any scholarship at Stanford, instead he saved up and paid for his own master’s degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and finished in less than two years. 

Unlike the young, less fortunate Pinoys today who say they study or work hard to get themselves “out of poverty,” Dado’s motivation to excel in school was different. “We had no notion of wealth, we didn’t even know there was such a thing as a wealthy person. We studied because our parents told us it was important.”

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Dado and Maria met through common friends in Seattle. He recalls how she asked him one day if he had a savings account, and when he said he didn’t, she actually opened one for him, which forced him to save. Many years later, he started his own companies that did very well, and eventually ended up selling some, reportedly one for a $430 million and another for over a billion dollars.

2. Dado’s childhood wish was to become a pilot. In his early 20s, he was hired as a design engineer for the development of the Boeing 747. As fate would have it, today, he is able to fly his own plane.

“I was literally 19 years old when I got my engineering degree, and at that age, I was looking for something more interesting. I had high expectations,” Dado shares. He says he was offered a couple of jobs after college but he found them boring (“I didn’t see myself doing it every day”) and he was actually discouraged. Until he saw this advertisement for Philippine Airlines saying they were looking for pilot trainees. They were 10 in their batch at the PAL Aviation School, and after a year-long training, he was offered a job at Boeing. He took the job and moved to Seattle.

“They were in the final stage of integration and a lot of systems have already been designed, but there was quite a lot of work left,” Dado recalls. He says that there were a few other Filipinos working on the 747, but it was his team that was in charge of finalizing design, control surfaces, and engine systems indication (to name a few). There was grand event for the Boeing 747 launch and Dado shares: “To see it do its first flight was amazing. You cannot imagine such a big airplane lift up. It was very inspiring.” He says that the event was very exciting, but that he found his work there to be boring. “So I went to graduate school.” 

Fast forward to when he was 53 and Dado still cannot believe he was able to buy his first plane. He begs off answering specific details, but says that they’re used for family trips and important business matters. When I asked what it felt like when he flew his own plane for the first time, he smiles from ear to ear like a child playing with his favorite toy and says, “It was awesome.”

3. He decided to base himself in Silicon Valley at a time it wasn’t even called Silicon Valley yet. That was in the early ‘70s and Dado was 26.

“It was just a bunch of orchards back then,” he recalls smiling. He says that most engineers had no idea it would explode in 30 years, the way Silicon Valley is today. He saw some established companies that were already doing the things he liked to do, plus he was very comfortable there, which is what sealed the deal for him to live in the area. “In my graduate program, I combined solid state circuits and computer architecture. What it means really is the idea of putting a computer in a chip,” he explains. He was interviewed and was offered a job at Intel, American Microsystems, and National Semiconductors (the only companies that were doing Dado’s vision of putting the knowledge of software and hardware together) and he chose National Semiconductors because he felt they had the best program.

The Banatao family come together for the first holy communion of one of the apos.

He often says that if Silicon Valley were a country, it’d be Top 11 in the world in terms of GDP, which is why he highly encourages the Philippines to invest more in math and science in schools, and in research and technology, because he believes it is a great step towards national development. 

4. Dado was friends with Steve Jobs. They were both part of a small group called the Homebrew Computer Club.

“In the really, really early stages of personal computers, there were a lot of tinkerers and engineers who wanted to build these computers themselves at home, so it was more like a hobby,” he says of their club. He says Steve Wozniak of Apple was “a true engineer, a real techie,” and that Steve Jobs’ strength was “how to apply things better, and his designs reflected that.” He shares that the company he was working with back then created their own personal computer, and that for a good three to four years in the mid ‘70s, they were outselling the Apple computer. “We had the same ideas and a lot of those, we were talking about it in the club,” he fondly recalls. “I can still imagine those evenings where one guy would bring his program and say, ‘Hey, see what I can do here’ and another would go ‘No, I can do better’ and it was that kind of club we were daring each other.”

When I joked if he considers himself more of a nerd or a geek, he says: “You start out as a nerd then you become a geek. By that time, I was already a geek,” he laughs.

5. Dado Banatao in numbers:

150: grade of his glasses for his right eye, his left eye is 20/20.

25: centavos (in pesos) it cost him to buy a small bowl of pancit for lunch back in college. To get to school, he took a bus then a jeepney to his campus in Doroteo Jose. 

18: around the age he experienced celebrating his birthday for the first time. And he doesn’t really think it was a celebration, it was just a get together with friends and someone brought bibingka. “Growing up, we didn’t celebrate birthdays. The way we’d celebrate is we would go to church that day. It was so basic.” Today, he and his family never fail to celebrate a birthday, but Dado says its still a very simple celebration.

151: number of scholarships to be given away to Filipino science or engineering students this year by the SuperFund project. Each scholar gets a total of P1,000,000 for five years.

unknown: the number of cars he owns. “I like cars,” he says with a shy smile.

6. On what for him is his most significant invention: “Let’s not use the word invention, for me, innovation is more important than invention.”

“When scientists or engineers invent things, there must be millions of those around the world but we never know of them because it deals only with one little thing. Unless you mix other things to it, it is not useful,” Dado explains. He says that in innovation, you take many concepts and put them together, with a specific application and market already in mind. “What I did at Stanford became very important because I combined computer science and solid state devices,” he says. According to him, the trick was keeping the system the same but throwing away all the useless things. “I found a way and realized how it can be redesigned properly.”

Dado’s childhood wish was to become a pilot. In his early 20s, he was hired as a design engineer for the development of the Boeing 747. As fate would have it, today, he is able to fly his own plane.

7. After 10 years as an employee, he started his own companies that did very well, and eventually ended up selling some, reportedly one for a $430 million and another for over a billion dollars.

Dado went from individual contributor to first level manager to manager of an entire operation in his early years as an employee in Silicon Valley. “Those are all confidence building events that made me think I can do really challenging things and deliver the product. I think most entrepreneurs go through that process,” he shares.

His first start up company, Mostron, was put up with $500,000 pooled together from friends and founders of the group. They developed a PC motherboard that unfortunately was not so successful. “I felt really bad because that was my idea, but all the customers wanted to buy were the chips that I designed,” Dado reveals.”I learned a lot from there.”

With the same idea from his first startup, with adjustments made, and with someone investing a million dollars in his idea, Dado put up his second startup company with a former boss of his, Chips and Technology. He basically designed the very first chip set for the PC. “It enabled a lot of engineers who wanted to design the PC system to come up with their own design because we took care of the nitty-gritty for compatibility,” he shares. The company grew very, very fast and from the time they started it, they took it public in 22 months, and in four years, the revenue was $650 million. 

S3 was (as the name implies) his third start up company. “I was very disappointed with the graphics performance of the PC, it was very slow,” he recalls. After setting up a meeting with Microsoft and a separate meeting with Intel to pitch his idea, he started his redesign of the chip he needed to make the computer run faster. The technical term is “bus,” borrowing from the concept of an actual bus, because it is a collection of signals and data being shipped from one place to another. “Today that bus is called PCI, and it is everywhere. Companies use it now as a standard bus.”

In 1997, he was given the Master Entrepreneur of the Year Award sponsored by Ernst and Young, Inc. magazine and Merrill Lynch Business Financial Services.

8. He met his wife Maria when he was 23 years old, and they’ve been together ever since. He is now 66.

Dado and Maria met through common friends in Seattle, and after dating for a few months, they went “exclusive.” He recalls how she asked him one day if he has a savings account, and when he said he didn’t, she actually opened an account for him which forced him to save. (That and this forced savings program at Boeing were what made him afford his tuition at Stanford.) While he was in California for his master’s, she was taking up her master’s in Education at the University of Washington. Since it was a long distance relationship, they had this strategy to save money. “Instead of calling each other, we had a code of number of rings on the phone. I had a roommate back then and I had to tell him to not pick up the phone right away. He was laughing at me.” He did get to visit her during Christmas and spring break, on which he took eight-hour drives just to see her.

They got married in 1972 and today, they are fulfilled parents to three children, and even happier grandparents to six grandchildren, with another one due in August. When I asked him what the one most important thing he wants his kids and grandkids to value, he says, “Education.”

9. The mobile phone he uses today has been his phone for the past 12 years. A (“really old”) Motorola Razr.

“There’s a new one but that’s a smart phone, I have the really old model,” he says smiling. He has no favorite gadgets, but has an iPad, a PC laptop, and a Mac laptop. “I hardly use these things frankly, apparently I stay away from them” he reveals. When I tell him how people (myself included) would think that he would have the most high-tech phones and gadgets considering he is the authority on technological advancements, all he could do was smile and shrug his elbows.

“I’m not into gadgets, the closest thing I guess, its more of what I drive and what I fly,” he then smiles that shy smile once again. 

10. Today, both his business and advocacy are geared towards helping young students and entrepreneurs who are set on making their mark in the field of science and engineering. 

Because he had generous teachers and investors who helped and guided his drive to reach his goals, he does the same today for others. Tallwood Venture Capital is a company Dado put up that invests exclusively in semi-conductor related technologies and products that can make a significant impact in the market. There is one story about a simple family business who gave Dado a cold call to pitch their idea, and after checking out the facts and their credibility, through Tallwood’s investment, that small business grew its worth to about a billion dollars. 

Dado is also committed to helping students who want to pursue a career in science. He is the chairman of PhilDev, an organization that strives for a globally competitive Philippine economy by supporting students and programs in the field of engineering. The SuperFund provides college scholarships in the Philippines, they also support high school scholars in his hometown Cagayan, they have the Asia Pacific Fund that gives grants to Filipino college students in California pursuing degrees in science and engineering, and they regularly hold forums and camps to mentor budding entrepreneurs. On their recent forum in Cebu, he says, “I loved the energy of the young entrepreneurs, and we gave a lot of advice. They’re very undaunted, they dream.”

* * *

To those who might be interested, Dado Banatao and the PhilDev trustees will be in Cebu this October for their annual forum and you can register and inquire at phildev.org and facebook.com/PhilippineDevelopmentFoundation.

E-mail me at askiamsuperbianca@yahoo.com or follow me on Twitter @iamsuperbianca.

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