Arnold Chen doesn’t recall a specific ah-ha moment during his graduate student days at MNTL, but he’s certain he developed an interest in entrepreneurship while on campus. “That seed was planted at Illinois,” said Chen, who worked with ECE Professor Keh-Yung Norman Cheng on molecular beam epitaxy (MBE) crystal growth.
Chen’s entrepreneurial interest grew into a passion in 1998 when he was the seventh employee to join Bay-area startup Genoa, which was developing a new type of optical amplifier for metro and telecommunication applications. Chen used his MBE expertise to grow material, and he managed the development of the company’s new fabrication facility and operations.
“We ramped extraordinarily fast, reaching about 100 employees within three years, and then the bubble burst” said Chen, noting that the recession of 2001 took its toll on the company, which was sold to another optical communications company in 2003.
Tapping into his network of Illinois-MNTL alumni, Chen then went to work for Fred Kish, who was vice president of photonic integrated circuit (PIC) development at Infinera, another Bay Area startup. Chen worked as a process engineer for several years before taking charge of Infinera’s cleanroom and PIC fabrication operation.
As Wafer Fab operations manager, Chen was responsible for Infinera’s PIC factory, including wafer and die fabrication, assembly, and line maintenance operations.
During those eight years, the company grew from less than 100 employees to more than 1,000, said Chen, who decided it was time to return to a start-up environment.
The opportunity arrived in 2011 through a friend’s cousin, who had recently co-founded Aurrion, the maker of a hybrid silicon photonic integration platform for data center applications. At Aurrion, Chen served as vice president of operations, helping develop the company’s strategy, culture, technical roadmap, and operations.
In August, Chen will begin a new chapter in his career as a faculty entrepreneur in residence at Purdue University, where he can share his knowledge and experience with the next generation of engineers. “When you work in Silicon Valley, you’re burning the candle at both ends and you can only do that for so long,” said Chen, who is returning to his hometown and where he earned his bachelor’s degree. “It was a family life decision—my wife and I have two young children.”
Chen is grateful for his Illinois education, particularly his hands-on experience learning MBE at MNTL. “Being trained in MBE requires a lot of patience because the tool can break at times,” he said. “It really forced me to learn to have patience and plan out experiments, while giving me a solid engineering background.”
His advice for current MNTL students: Do an internship. “The majority of you will work for a company that makes a real product, so get real-world experience before you graduate,” said Chen, who did a summer internship at Bell Labs while still in graduate school. “The reality is if you do really well at an internship, you’ll probably be asked back. If you do well again, you’ll be offered a job because you’ve been vetted and have proven that you can do it.”
ARNOLD CHEN'S TOP 3 ACCOMPLISHMENTS SINCE GRADUATING FROM ILLINOIS
- Although the startup company Genoa was acquired by Finisar in 2003, Chen is proud of the team and facility he helped build there. “Some of the people I recruited right out of school are now director level, having moved up the ranks,” he said. “It’s really rewarding to see.”
- Being part of the team at Infinera that made the world’s first photonic integrated circuit. “A number of my process designs are still used in production, which is cool.”
- Establishing the foundry operations, R&D Fab services, and other operations as vice president at Aurrion. “It remains to be seen if the Aurrion product and infrastructure that I put in place is going to take off in the market.”