Opportunity knocking

    Geoff Tate's winding journey from undergrad to CEO

    By Adam Williams on June 1, 2015

    Geoff Tate’s (’74 BSc) career has always been about finding the next challenge—and having fun while doing it. Now the CEO of Flex Logix in Silicon Valley and formerly the CEO of Rambus— a technology startup Tate helped grow from four people to a company with market capitalization of more than a billion dollars—it’s a strategy that has worked well for the University of Alberta alumnus.

    “Life, to me, isn’t about proud accomplishments. It’s more about conquering challenges and having fun,” says Tate. “The whole time at university, and after university, I have always just been chasing challenges and doing what motivated me. One thing leads to another.”

    "The whole time at university, and after university, I have always just been chasing challenges and doing what motivated me. One thing leads to another."

    Tate first attended the U of A in 1971, graduating with an undergraduate degree in computing science in 1974 before going on to do his MBA at Harvard University. A self-described businessman with a technical background, the Edmonton native considered plenty of offers after retiring as CEO of Rambus before landing at Flex Logix, a young company established to design portions of microchips for chip producers. Though the startup is still in its early days—having just incorporated in 2014—Tate says he’s enjoying his time.

    Tate wasn’t always a computer science whiz. When he first started at the U of A, he had his sights set on a physics degree. He went through a few options before finally finding something that truly motivated him. “I think I was one of those kids who every year wanted to be something different—a paleontologist one year, an astronomer another year, and an atom-smashing physicist another year,” he explains. When he hit upon his passion for computing science, a course he originally took as an option, he was reminded of how much fun he could have working with computers.

    It wasn’t Tate’s first introduction to the computing world: as a high-school student, he had dipped his toes in the water of electronics when he was offered a spot in a program aimed at giving teens hands-on experience with the machines. Back then, computers were perceived as untouchable says Tate, but the program removed those barriers and set the foundation for what would become a career.

    “I think, like a lot of students, it’s somewhat of a random journey,” Tate says. “You kind have a general direction and things happen and you keep making course adjustments. For me, it ended up working out pretty well.”

    Student startup scores big

    Neesha Desai and Kit Chen, PhD students in computing science, are the inaugural winners of the $50k Ross and Verna Tate Science Entrepreneurship Award for their startup Alieo Games, an educational technology company. Alieo’s first product—COW (Creative Online Writing)—is a novel educational tool intended to help students revise their creative writing. The majority of existing games in this area focus on math and reading, since writing is much more difficult for computers to do.

    Chen and Desai see the award as validation from the community that they are on the right path. “Ideally in less than 10 years, we’ll be able to give back to places that have helped support us getting here,” Desai says. “That would be ideal—that not only are we able to pay ourselves, but that there’s money there that we can turn around and say, ‘We were there, we knew what it was like to be a student.’”

    Learn more at alieogames.com

    It’s that history, in part, which drove Tate’s support of the Ross and Verna Tate High School Internship Program (HIP) at the U of A. The program, which gives students the opportunity to do a six-week summer internship centred around computing, essentially passes along the same introduction Tate was given as a young person in Edmonton.

    And, when he was pitched the idea to establish the new Ross and Verna Tate Science Entrepreneurship Award at the U of A for science-based startup companies, he jumped on that idea too. “I have always been interested in entrepreneurism and think it is a great thing to give young people the chance to try.”

    It aligns with the most important piece of advice he has for students: if it’s a fit, get involved in the sciences. “The opportunities in industry for people with STEM backgrounds—Science, Technology, Engineering, Math—are tremendous,” he says. “It’s the best return on investment you’re going to get out of a university education.”

    Tate’s own journey, which began all those years ago as a high-schooler in a computer program, hasn’t always taken the straightforward route but, as he says, it has always centred around doing what motivated and challenged him.

    Embarking on a new challenge with Flex Logix is more of the same. “We took Rambus public, and my real dream is to turn Flex Logix into a public company. That doesn’t happen overnight,” says Tate. “I would hope, sometime five to 10 years from now, that this becomes another large, public company. That would be really exciting for me. That’s as far out as I can plan. Five years is forever. Past that, who knows.”