Kevin Surace is on a mission to significantly reduce the use of fossil fuels and their effect on the environment. As CEO of Serious Materials, Kevin leads the company in its mission to reduce energy use and CO2 generation of the world’s largest contributor, our buildings.
SM: Take us back to where your personal story begins. Where are you from?
KS: I am from upstate New York, and I grew up in Herkimer until third or fourth grade. Herkimer is a suburb of Utica and has about 5,000 people. My father was an executive with GE so we moved to the suburbs outside of Syracuse. It is surrounded by farm areas and is an absolutely great area in which to raise kids. Everyone knows each other and it is very family-oriented. All of us kids knew each other because we were in scouts and band together.
SM: Where did you go to college?
KS: I went to college at Rochester Institute of Technology. I am now on the board of trustees there. I studied Electrical Engineering Technology. It is like electrical engineering but was a little more hands-on and a little less theoretical.
SM: What happened after that?
KS: I did a co-op in college with IBM. That was a great experience. I worked full time through college at an audio-video chain called Sounds Great. I was 18 and stayed there for the better part of five years. By the time I left I had interfaced and sold to about 10,000 customers. That will never happen again in my career, where I will be able to one-on-one interface with 10,000 customers. If I can get out on the road and see two or three a day, that is great.
SM: Nowadays people sell online.
KS: True. It was a time when people went to the store to buy. It was great experience. I then came out here to San Francisco for National Semiconductor.
SM: What kind of work did you do for them?
KS: I was a product marketing engineer. This was application specific. In those days 3 micron moving to 2 micron was big news. Product marketing engineer there was very much like a sales engineer. We had our commodity sales people who would sell memory or microcontrollers, but when it came to ASICs that was a much more complex sell. It required simulation and design tools. In those days you could not simulate at your desk; instead it would go to a mainframe, which was about as fast as my watch.
SM: Which year are we talking about?
KS: This was in 1985. It would take 24 hours to simulate 6,000 gates. In those days you laid out gate by gate.
SM: The electronic design automation industry happened a bit later. It had started but had not taken off.
KS: The design tools we had were very limited. You moved around gates and laid them out; if you could get five gates together then you were doing well. We really did not have sub-modules yet. In the later days of ASICS you could just drop a microcontroller there and it came pre-laid out.
SM: How long did you stay at National?
KS: Only a year. In those days if you knew anything about ASICs, the big up-and-coming semiconductor, you would be drawn away. I got an opportunity at a Japanese semiconductor, Seiko Epson. It was a 60% increase in salary, which was enough to get me away from National even though I loved the people and the work. They could not match that salary and they were used to people in our group churning out often. The industry was growing so rapidly, especially with the Japanese firms getting involved, that we all had multiple job offers all the time. Eventually one would come along that was too good to refuse.