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Tech entrepreneur Thomas Siebel spent a lot of time in basements when he was a University of Illinois graduate student.

That's where computer labs were in the 1980s, with room-sized machines surrounded by students trying to figure out where the coding on their keypunch cards went wrong.

"Back then, they were pretty dull places," Siebel said, "before anybody conceived of the kind of design breakthroughs that we have in technology today."

Siebel, who has founded two leading software firms and worked with the likes of Oracle's Larry Ellison, is the driving force behind the UI's new Siebel Center for Design, scheduled to open in January 2020.

It's designed to pull together students from across campus to work on groundbreaking projects and solve real-world problems.

Siebel holds three UI degrees — in history, business and computer science — and donated $25 million toward the $48 million project, on top of $32 million he gave in 1999 for the UI's sleek computer science building that also bears his name.

Altogether, with endowed faculty positions and student scholarships, he and his wife have pledged $100 million to the university.

Siebel talked with The News-Gazette about the new project, his time at the UI — including his first "mini computer" — and his tech predictions for the future.

How did this project come about?

I approached the campus. I'm active in a number of university communities, and one of the trends we see, particularly at Stanford and Berkeley, and to a lesser extent at MIT, is a very, very, substantial interest in these design places, where people engage in ideation and creation and product design — a lot of things that you touch or use or talk to or sit on. It's just a huge trend today.

This is a discipline that in many schools was in mechanical engineering. Without taking any shots at anybody, mechanical engineering in the last couple of decades hasn't been the most exciting place people want to go. It was computer science, electrical engineering, bioengineering, neuro-bioengineering, that kind of thing.

All of a sudden, we're seeing mechanical engineering just take off like crazy, due to these design centers. Everybody goes to them ... designing widgets and phones and new devices and consumer products. It's really, really exciting. They attract people all over the campus, from the sciences, the hard sciences, biological sciences, engineers, fine arts, performing arts, liberal arts, classics.

I'm very pleased that the university thought it was a good idea.

Why is there such an emphasis on design now?

I think there's been a big push in the last couple of decades in academic and research institutions for multidisciplinary work.

It used to be that we had these silos of biology and engineering and mechanical engineering and medicine. Now, they put people in (these fields) ... in the same building, and they run into each other at the coffee machine and invent a device that's the size of a human cell that cures stage 4 breast cancer.

How will this design center be unique?

The architect we brought in, Peter Bohlin, is one of the foremost architects in the world. He did most of the Apple stores, the Apple cube in New York City, the Siebel Center for Computer Science. This guy is a big deal. He designs spaces where people like to be.

If you compare the facility we're building at the University of Illinois to the facilities at any institution in North America that I'm aware of, this is absolutely the high-water mark. I think it's going to be a remarkable place, where people can get together, collaborate, where you'll have multidisciplinary collaboration of science and humanities and engineers.

We put it down on the south campus on purpose. It would probably have been a mistake to put it north of Green Street. People would think it was for engineers. I think it's for everybody. It reports to engineering. There will still be rigor and discipline. ... It won't be just a play space. The way they designed it is very thoughtful. I think it's going to be one of the landmarks on the campus.

Would you have used this as a student?

Had it been there, I certainly would have taken advantage of it. I think it's going to be a wonderful place. It will be social and creative. You will see new products that will come out of it, new companies that will come out of it. People will launch their careers out of ideas they created there.

Will you attend the opening?

I will certainly be there if I can.

Ten years from now, what will be the big tech breakthrough that no one's talking about now?

One of the things that will change, and be the most impactful, will be embedded communication devices and sensors that are embedded in people.

We've just started to get to wearables today. You can imagine devices that are communicating blood chemistry or your heart rate at 60 hertz cycles per second. Each of us in 10 years will have embedded in various places in our body sensors that will communicate a lot of bioinformatics.

The types of technologies that we are familiar with today on the iPhone — whether those are communication technologies, testing technologies, geospatial reference technologies, navigation technologies, or the ability to visualize things — I would not be at all surprised to see those cerebrally embedded.

Ten years is a long time in this day and age.

You've given an enormous amount of money to the university. Why?

I'm a strong believer in education. I think the University of Illinois is unquestionably one of the great education and research institutions on the planet. They provide unlimited resources for people to learn to explore, to develop their skills and to go out and make the world a better place, create jobs, create products, create companies, cure disease and contribute to lower environmental impact.

To the extent that I am active philanthropically, I'm relatively small potatoes in that picture, I would think. We tend to do a lot on basic research in universities, and also identifying bright young people and helping accelerate their academic and career development.

Tell us about Siebel Scholars.

We have over 1,000 Siebel Scholars today. They're very, very accomplished. It's fun to be able to associate with them and hold our scholars conference. I just thought it would be very interesting to develop a global community of people who are highly connected who were exceptionally bright and accomplished.

We bring together a multiplicity of disciplines there — in engineering, in computer science, bioengineering, business, environmental science. ... We wrestle with challenging topics and we have a lot of fun.

Are you interested in the new Carle Illinois College of Medicine?

It's a very interesting idea. I think it's transformative for the university. I'm a big supporter of it.

Which professor had the greatest impact on you at the university?

There were a number of professors. Richard Engelbrecht-Wiggins had a large impact on the direction of my life. He was north of Green Street in the engineering school. I took a class with him, I think it was operations research.

He's the one who really introduced me to computers and computer science. He had a very big impact on my life, and he had a very substantial impact on my career.

What kind of computer did you have in college?

Back then, you didn't have computers. I'm before computers. Computers were about the size of the building you're in. It was kind of pre-computers, as we know it.

I did get my hands on a mini-computer once, which by today's standards was pretty big, a PDP 11. Before that, they used to have these big cyber CDC computers. We'd have to sit down at a keypunch machine and hammer out keypunch cards and thousands of lines of code.

Tell us about your experience with Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle and one-time UI student.

He was before my time. I think he was at Illinois for maybe one year. Larry's got a couple of years on me.

I worked with him for a decade and I got to know him pretty well. He's a talented guy, built a great company. I was involved in the formative stages of Oracle Corp., and later on he bought a company I started to build (Siebel Systems).

Do you pay any attention to the Forbes 400 list? (Siebel is No. 309).

I pay no attention.

Do you know Shahid Kahn (No. 70)?

I like Shahid, he's great. He and I used to be on the board of the engineering school together. He's a great guy. Is he on top of the list yet?

 

GENEROUS GIFTS

Some of the biggest non-sports gifts from UI alums to the UI’s Urbana campus over the years:

$100 million, Grainger Engineering Breakthroughs Initiative, 2013. Gift from Grainger Foundation for bioengineering, big data and other initiatives.

$100 million, Thomas M. Siebel Fund for Excellence in Science and Engineering, 2007. Pledge from tech entrepreneur for fellowships, faculty chairs and projects in alternative energy, stem cell research, other areas.

$40 million, Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, 1985. Gift from Arnold Beckman, founder of scientific equipment company Beckman Instruments.

$32 million, Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science, 1999. First eight-figure gift from founder of Siebel Systems.

$25 million, Siebel Center for Design, 2016. Building to encourage student design collaboration across campus.

$19 million, Grainger Engineering Library, 1999. Gift from William Grainger, founder of W.W. Grainger Inc.

$12 million, Sidney Lu Center for Learning and Innovation, 2015. Gift from Taiwanese tech CEO for five-story addition to Mechanical Engineering Building.

$10 million, Doris Kelley Christopher Hall, 2002. Gift from Pampered Chef founder to create Family Resiliency Center.

$8 million, Temple Hoyne Buell Hall, 1989. Gift from Buell Foundation, established by architecture grad who designed first shopping mall.

$6 million, Chez Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education, 2012. Gift from Chez Family Foundation to serve students who are disabled veterans.

$5 million, Campbell Hall, 1993. Gift from Robert and Alice Campbell for new broadcast center for  WILL AM, FM, and TV.

 

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).