Armed with optimism and a degree in physics, Jim Kaschmitter BS’72, showed up for his first day on the job at Anaconda Copper’s Research Facility in Salt Lake City only to be told by his supervisor to go home because Chile had just nationalized its copper mines. Undeterred, Kaschmitter found a job with OmniLift Corporation, a Salt Lake City startup that was developing a new type of conveyor system in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the U. While working at the U, Kaschmitter bought one of the first Hewlett Packard HP25 calculators and became fascinated by computers. This fascination has led to a long and successful career in Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley Beckons
In 1976, Kaschmitter earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University while working for Professor Robert Byer (the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Applied Physics at Stanford’s Applied Physics Department), helping to build laser spectroscopy equipment. He began a Ph.D. program in Applied Physics but dropped out to take a job at Stanford Telecommunications. Inc. (STI) in Mountain View, Calif. STI was founded by the late James Spilker, Jr., who hired Kaschmitter as an early employee. Spilker was one of the inventors of GPS. While at STI, Kaschmitter designed and built a Viterbi convolutional codec (with an encoder and decoder) for satellite communications.
From there Kaschmitter turned his attention to microprocessors, which were then rapidly advancing in Silicon Valley. He co-developed an automated wafer dicing saw using an Imsai 8080 he and his partner purchased from the first Byte Shop in Mountain View, Calif. Interestingly, this shop had the first Apple computer for sale at the time—an unpackaged PCB with a keyboard. After several interim electronics design jobs, Kaschmitter was recruited to Elxsi Corporation, a San Jose startup founded by ex-Digital Equipment Corporation engineers, where he designed the disk subsystem and worked on the IEEE floating point processor and high-speed bus. He became interested in integrated circuit packaging, which led him to apply for a position at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)
At LLNL, Kaschmitter undertook several projects, including laser pantography for integrated circuit packaging, image processing, and redundant computing for orbital satellites, solar electric aircraft, and energy storage. In 1987, he co-founded nChip Corporation to commercialize hybrid wafer-scale integration; this technology was later sold to Flextronics. In 1989, Kaschmitter assumed responsibility for developing a low-cost power system for President Reagan’s Star Wars satellite system, but he was frustrated by the expensive, heavy batteries then used in satellites, so he began to investigate lithium-ion, or Li-ion batteries, which were still in the research and development phase. He co-founded PolyStor Corporation in 1993, with a grant from President Clinton’s Technology Reinvestment Project program, and his company subsequently established the first commercial Li-ion manufacturing facility in the U.S. In 1997, he spun off PowerStor Corporation from PolyStor to commercialize a carbon aerogel supercapacitor he’d co-invented at LLNL. PowerStor was subsequently acquired by Cooper Bussmann, Inc., which manufactures 1-2 million supercapacitors per month.
Today, Kaschmitter is CEO of SpectraPower (which he founded in 2002) in Livermore, Calif in order to apply PolyStor’s high-energy Nickel-Cobalt technology for high-altitude electric drones. Initially, the market wasn’t yet ready for the technology, so Kaschmitter subsequently founded UltraCell Corporation to work on reformed methanol micro-fuel cell technology. UltraCell’s fuel cells are deployed today with the U.S. military. In the meantime, Kaschmitter has continued with SpectraPower and now focuses his efforts there on supporting users and developers of Li-based battery technologies.
Memories of the U
“The U is a great school with strong technical departments and academics, especially in the area of physics. The department always had an international outlook but with a supportive small-school atmosphere,” said Kaschmitter. “The students and professors were friendly, approachable, and focused on science. Physics has truly provided the foundation for my career.” He also appreciated the advice provided by Professor Orest Symko, whose insights helped Kaschmitter set personal goals and priorities.
During his undergraduate years, one of his favorite jobs was running the undergraduate Physics Lab, where he maintained and explained basic physics experiments to students. “There have been some stressful times later in my career when I’ve wished I could have that job back!” quipped Kaschmitter.
His advice for undergraduate students is twofold: set career goals and be prepared to work hard to achieve them. As Edison famously said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”
“I’d also encourage students to stay “fact-based” in whatever profession they choose,” said Kaschmitter. “Don’t let the zeitgeist or trendy popular ideas control your technical thinking. Weigh different opinions, but trust in facts and data. Learn to separate hype from reality.”
Like many of us, Kaschmitter is facing uncertainties during the pandemic but believes the quarantine can provide us with opportunities for independent work. For example, Sir Isaac Newton invented calculus, optics, etc., while he was quarantined in the English countryside during the Great Plague. “We probably can’t all do that, but I’ve found the quarantine allows me to get a lot of work done without the usual day-to-day distractions,” said Kaschmitter.
When he isn’t working, he makes time for his other love—flying. He has a long-time interest in aviation and first did a solo flight at age 16 at the Salt Lake International Airport. “My instructor was Bill Edde, and I sometimes flew with his older brother, who was a former WWI Spad fighter pilot. Later in my career, while at LLNL, I developed lightweight wing-mounted solar panels for the Pathfinder and Helios solar electric aircraft, which AeroVironment subsequently used to set altitude records,” said Kaschmitter. He currently owns, maintains, and flies an experimental Velocity XL-RG: N568Y.
In summing up his career, Kaschmitter notes his favorite adage: “If you love your work, you’ll never work a day in your life,” and that’s certainly how I feel about my career." He admits physics is not the easiest path academically, but studying it gives students a fundamental understanding of science and technology that will give them an edge over the competition. “I’ve dealt with many venture capitalists in Silicon Valley and worldwide throughout my career,” he said. “Having a technical background is a real asset—the ones without it are at a disadvantage in today’s technology-reliant world.”