The Accidental Entrepreneur
When San Diego’s most successful entrepreneur agreed to sit down for an interview with ID8 Nation, we were expecting the minimum – some pleasantries, a few generalities, a peek at the wristwatch and out the door.
After all, Irwin Jacobs doesn’t owe anyone anything. The founder of Qualcomm revolutionized the cell phone business and, with an approximate net worth of $1.5 billion, he’s among the top 1,000 wealthiest people in the world.
Such people are usually stingy with their time and understandably so. Though now retired from Qualcomm, the 80-year-old is still a force in San Diego business, civic affairs and philanthropy. He is chairman of the board of trustees of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and immediate past chair of the National Academy of Engineering.
So we were surprised when Jacobs invited us to his home. Surprise turned to astonishment once we were inside. Located on a quiet cul-de-sac in La Jolla with an ocean view, the one-story house is deceptively modest from the outside.
Jacobs and his wife, Joan, built it on a one-acre lot in 1968 for $63,000. They’ve expanded and remodeled several times since to a total of 4,000 square feet. It had to become bigger to accommodate Jacobs’ love for music and art.
The newest addition, the music room, has a stage at one end dominated by a grand piano. Pianists visiting the San Diego Symphony routinely give concerts here (Jacobs has given the orchestra $120 million). Much of the rest of the house is given over to an extensive modern art collection, including a Picasso.
An assistant directed us to set up in the music room and told us Jacobs was running late at a meeting. Great, we thought, whatever amount of time that had been reserved for us had just shrunk. Our crew of five goggled at the art and warned each other not to touch anything.
While we waited, we reviewed what we knew of Jacobs. A native of New Bedford, Mass., he was an associate professor of electrical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he was recruited by UC San Diego in 1966. While there he co-founded Linkabit in Los Angeles in 1968. The digital telecommunications company moved to San Diego in 1970. Linkabit merged with another firm in 1980 and Jacobs resigned in 1985.
Linkabit is credited with spinning off more than 100 telecommunication companies. Its most famous and successful progeny is Qualcomm, co-founded by Jacobs in 1985. Qualcomm did nothing less than revolutionize modern communications.
It pioneered the development and commercialization of CDMA wireless technology, the basis for all third-generation cellular networks. Qualcomm is now the world’s largest semiconductor supplier for wireless products. The Fortune 500 firm has more than 22,000 employees worldwide.
The producer wandered down the hallway to a bathroom. Coming out, he came face-to-face with a tall, older gentleman he had hoped to meet under different circumstances. “Uh, Dr. Jacobs?”
It was, of course. He followed us into the music room and asked if he had time to grab a soda. Clearly used to being on camera, he was funny, attentive, polite and warm – not what you’d expect from a billionaire in a hurry. In all, he gave us an hour of this time, including an impromptu tour of his art collection.
He had a lot of interesting things to say about education, digital medicine and entrepreneurship – all delivered from the perspective of a man who’d taken a good idea and turned it into an industry.
We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.