|KAIST president Kang Sung-mo speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Herald.|
(Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Kang Sung-mo left Korea 40 years ago to study electrical and computer engineering in the U.S. He worked hard and went on to establish a career in Silicon Valley ― where he designed the world’s first 32-bit microprocessor chip, headed a prestigious research institution and obtained more than 16 patents in his name.
Having enjoyed such success, Kang, now 67, is back in Korea for what he calls his much-anticipated mission.
“My grandfather, an independent activist during the Japanese colonial rule, told me that I must study hard, become a professor and serve the country. Now I came here to fulfill the mission,” the head of KAIST, Korea’s top science and technology university, said in an interview with The Korea Herald.
He was inaugurated as the 15th president of the school in Daejeon in February. His appointment came in a difficult time. His predecessor Suh Nam-pyo prematurely ended his term amid controversy over his radical school reform drive.
An obvious reason for Kang’s appointment is that he has done this before.
Kang served as chancellor of the University of California, Merced from 2007-2011. Under his leadership, the school underwent significant growth in both undergraduate and graduate programs, with enrollment almost quadrupling.
Prior to his career in education, Kang worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories, where he led the development of the world’s first 32-bit microprocessor chip as a technical supervisor.
The world’s leading authority in electronic engineering admitted, however, that it was a difficult decision for him to leave behind his distinguished career in the U.S. in order to lead the troubled research institution.
“My major concern was how to resolve conflicts between members of the school and find a common goal.”
The president began his time in office by setting up a committee of students, workers and faculty members, and has had regular meetings to introduce “mid- and long-term” development goals.
He said the committee is now reviewing the former president Suh’s disputed polices, such as withdrawing tuition scholarships for underperforming students.
“We’ve been working together to find common goals. The committee will make draft plans in November and finalize them after holding public hearings,” he said.
As a scientist, Kang believes that the ultimate goal of science and technology lies in the “well-being of society.”
Kang was appointed last month to a panel of the newly reorganized Presidential Advisory Council on Science and Technology.
In particular, he heads the subcommittee specifically tasked with determining recommended variables for developing a creative economy, a key project of the Park Geun-hye administration.
“I think my appointment shows (the president’s) high expectations for KAIST,” he said.
Founded in 1971, KAIST made significant contributions to the nation’s development by producing scientists and engineers, and conducting pioneering research for industries.
Kang said KAIST must go beyond these initial accomplishments and be a “powerful engine” for the economic advancement of the country.
As part of “creative” drive, Kang focuses on promoting innovative start-ups and emulating young entrepreneurs.
KAIST plans to permit students to take a break for up to eight semesters and faculty members for up to six years to revitalize business start-ups.
“We need a system that allows people to set up venture firms and not be afraid of making mistakes or failing,” Kang said, drawing from his experience.
“I, too, made a lot of mistakes and failed, and even (Thomas) Edison failed 25,000 times in inventing the alkaline storage battery, but he didn’t call it failure,” he said.
This summer the school also established a liaison office in San Jose in the U.S.’ Silicon Valley to support the entrepreneurship of their graduates, students and faculty who aspire to transform their innovative ideas into businesses.
“It will provide various educational programs on entrepreneurship and technology translation, and offer opportunities to prospective entrepreneurs and start-ups to access the U.S. market.”
“The size of the office is rather small at the moment, but we’re looking to find a bigger space and expand the relationship with industry and research organizations,” he said.
Kang cited Stanford University as a model for the KAIST to benchmark. Stanford students have gone on to create nearly 40,000 companies since the 1930s. And today, companies created by Stanford students ― like Google, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems ― generate an astounding $2.7 trillion in annual revenue.
The president noted that KAIST graduates have fostered 611 companies as of December 2012 with its ratio of alumni to start-ups standing at a mere 1.3 percent.
To foster innovative start-ups, Kang is planning to open a special “idea lab,” where students and faculty members can engage more directly and conduct various experiments freely 24 hours a day.
“We’re also planning to launch a one-stop center to provide all necessary consulting services, from business inception to stabilization,” Kang said.
Last year, the school began to eliminate some lectures in classrooms and instead started to provide online lectures using a new platform called Education 3.0.
By eliminating lectures in classrooms, teachers and students are able to have discussions and various forms of interaction, he said.
“We’re looking to expand more courses that use this Edu 3.0 platform.”
The president is also focused on constructing a network with nearby venture companies in Daeduck Valley.
The government is planning to complete the International Science and Business Belt by 2017 in a 3.6-square-kilometer area of Daejeon. And he believes KAIST will play a central role in the next Silicon Valley in Korea.
He said that for Korea to count itself as a truly advanced nation, it should have at least one or two world-class universities.
“KAIST’s roots should span beyond national boundaries. I want make KAIST a truly world-leading institution,” he said. “This is my mission.”
By Oh Kyu-wook (email@example.com)Kang Sung-mo's Profile