Stanford SystemX seeks to make information technologies even more pervasive

Stanford refocuses its 30-year-old industrial research partnership to invent hardware, software and systems capable of monitoring health, managing energy, sensing environmental conditions and controlling the Internet of Things.

Poon Lab, Stanford Engineering tiny implant to monitor health or deliver therapies inside the body; shown next to penny for scale

Stanford electrical engineer Ada Poon developed the tiny device shown to monitor health or deliver therapies deep inside the human body. This implant is but one example of how researchers in Stanford's SystemX Alliance are putting technology to work in new ways.

The university that pioneered research collaborations between academia and industry has expanded from a device-driven to a systems-level view of how to ignite innovation.

The shift involves a change in name and philosophy at what had been the Stanford Center for Integrated Systems (CIS).

Since the late 1970s, CIS had enabled Stanford researchers to work with industry counterparts to improve semiconductors, software, computers and other technologies. CIS helped create the global networks and mobile devices that put technology in our pockets.

Now, SystemX researchers are working on the next killer applications – the data center of tomorrow, the self-driving car, the smartphones with artificial intelligence built in and next-generation biomedical devices, among others.

Bringing these applications to fruition will require new materials and power sources, novel hardware and software, and coordination of these technologies though reliable control networks.

Stanford President John Hennessy, whose research helped revolutionize computing during the 1980s, describes this systems-level approach as the "technology stack."

"For 30 years, CIS was the model of industry-university partnership to support advanced research in microelectronics," Hennessy said. "SystemX is updating that model to spur innovation in what we call the technology stack and open up new possibilities for sensing, communication and computing technologies."

To highlight this change Stanford has rechristened CIS as the SystemX Alliance.

Top-down innovation

The evolution from CIS to SystemX involves some additions to its leadership team.

H.-S. Philip Wong, a professor of electrical engineering, and Boris Murmann, an associate professor of electrical engineering, will serve as faculty co-directors of SystemX. They will work alongside Yoshio Nishi, a professor of electrical engineering, formerly CIS director of research and now chairman of the SystemX faculty board.

"The model in Silicon Valley since the 1970s has been to make better chips and then see what we can do with them," Wong said. "It was a bottom-up approach."

Wong said SystemX turns that model on its head. Today, technologists consider what they want to do and then design the technology stack to make it happen, creating systems that deliver solutions.

Storied past, promising future

SystemX inherits the mantle of innovation from CIS, which flourished in the mid-1980s and early 1990s during the heyday of semiconductor research.

In 1983, quoted in the Hewlett-Packard Journal, HP company founder William Hewlett, said: "CIS is a clear and distinct answer to three major problems that face the United States – the failure of our national programs of basic research to keep pace with the needs of our universities and industries, the need to strengthen our system of education, and the challenge to U.S. trade and technology posed by foreign countries."

In the early days of CIS new chip fabrication techniques were tested in what were then state-of-the-art cleanrooms in Stanford's Paul G. Allen Building. Eventually, the cost and complexity of chip fabrication outstripped the capabilities of university labs. Today, such innovations typically arise in industrial settings.

"It was a unique time that lasted decades, but it's coming to an end," Murmann said. "We're in a profound transition to something new and it's called SystemX."

The technology stack concept is attuned to this transition, because in some cases innovation may involve adapting current technologies to new uses. SystemX researcher Ada Poon, an assistant professor of electrical engineering, is striving to do that with "electroceutical" devices that would treat disease with electronics instead of drugs.

At other times researchers will have to revolutionize how they process information. SystemX researcher Jelena Vuckovic, a professor of electrical engineering, is developing components that would allow engineers to use photons instead of electrons to carry information.

How the new alliance works

SystemX is organized around six focus areas. In each area, faculty and graduate students work with companies to explore ambitious innovations.

"This helps companies more easily identify Stanford faculty who are working on topics of interest," Wong said. "That process used to happen by word of mouth, but SystemX formalizes the process of pairing companies with researchers."

The six initial focus areas include teams with broad missions that include:

  • Design productivity – improving how engineers and industry manage increasingly complex systems while shortening innovation cycles.
  • Energy and power management – engineering highly efficient systems that require less energy, and implementing new systems, like smart grids, to transform energy markets.
  • Biomedical interfaces – creating small, smart electronic systems for diagnosis and therapy, blending medicine and engineering in new ways.
  • Quantum technologies – developing the processes and hardware needed to use quantum mechanics to enable the next big leap in information technology.
  • "The Internet of Everything" – integrating all the many devices in our lives into coherent, manageable and secure networks that improve our lives.
  • Integration of heterogeneous systems – combining new materials and devices for process technology enhancements in 2D and 3D chips.

"The six focus areas help us organize our efforts, while leaving us flexible enough to add or shift priorities as our research changes gears, or pursue different opportunities," Murmann said.

Also joining the SystemX team is Rick Bahr, who had been a senior executive at Qualcomm. He will now serve as a strategic advisor to strengthen how SystemX works with industrial partners in an era when innovation will involve more coordinated research and less reliance on serendipitous invention.

Ahmad Bahai, chief technology officer for Texas Instruments, said CIS helped spur rapid advances in the semiconductor technologies that underlie high tech today.

"Now SystemX is leveraging that momentum to drive more disruptive innovation," Bahai said. "Through multidisciplinary research in devices, circuits and systems, it will impact the technology ecosystem in ways that will change our lives for better."

Richard Dasher, a consulting professor of electrical engineering and former executive director of CIS who will hold the same post at SystemX, framed the alliance this way:

"Industry is great at making technologies commercially viable to improve how we live, and Stanford engineering is great for exploratory research. SystemX brings those two together in a new way that benefits both."

He added: "That X is there for a reason. It's about the open-ended nature of our collaboration. The possibilities for SystemX are endless."

For more information visit the SystemX homepage.

Tom Abate, School of Engineering: (650) 736-2245,