Canadian semiconductor pioneer John Roberts passes away at 77

John Roberts

Canadian semiconductor pioneer John Roberts passed away at age 77 on Saturday. The news was shared on Twitter Wednesday evening by Roberts’ son, noted Canadian VC Matt Roberts.

Immigrating to Canada from Wales in the 1970s, Roberts was responsible for several innovations in the semiconductor space and founded companies like Tundra Semiconductor, SiGe Semiconductor, and GaN Systems, the latter of which became the world-leading manufacturer of GaN power transistors.

“My Dad was an incredible guy,” Matt Roberts wrote on Twitter. “He grew up poor, worked hard, caught some lucky breaks and took risks – culminating in some successful companies. He always believed that the biggest opportunity that came his way was getting the scholarship to attend university.”

“He grew up poor, worked hard, caught some lucky breaks and took risks – culminating in some successful companies.”

John Roberts spent more than 50 years throughout his career as an innovator, engineer, and entrepreneur. It started when Roberts got his first job at Hoover in Wales, where he won a design award after solving a technical problem with the company’s assembly line. The award led to Roberts receiving a scholarship from Hoover and studying electrical engineering and semiconductors, at a time when the industry was in its early stages.

Immigrating to Canada in the 1970s, Roberts worked for a number of tech companies including Microsystem International Limited (MIL), before eventually founding his own company in 1983: Calmos, which eventually became known as Tundra Semiconductor. Throughout his career, Roberts also launched the Strategic Microelectronics Consortium, an industry group where he mentored and partnered with tech founders. The group consisted of twenty-five industry companies including Nortel, PMC Sierra, IBM, Gennum Corporation, c-MAC MicroTechnology and other leading hybrid and semiconductor manufacturers. Roberts also took his company SiGe Semiconductor public in 2000.

He co-founded GaN Systems in 2008 alongside Girvan Patterson, serving as CTO and helping to revolutionize power electronics. The company became the world leader in the manufacturing of GaN power transistors, supplying more than 500 customers. Roberts was awarded a dozen patents, helped the company raise several rounds of venture capital, and received honours such as the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC)’s 2013 Lifetime Contribution Award. GaN Systems itself has become a recognized global cleantech company for its semiconductors, using the highly efficient gallium nitride rather than traditional silicon.

Roberts and his co-founder Patterson announced their retirement from GaN in 2016, after almost ten years leading the company. As his son noted on Twitter, retirement did not slow Roberts down. He retained a position on GaN Systems’ board of directors and was available to the company as an emeritus contributor. He also focused on developing higher-end speakers.

The Twitter thread on his father’s career is the most recent in a series of Canadian tech history lessons Matt Roberts has shared on the social media platform. Speaking with BetaKit, the VC indicated the intention was both to educate the current generation while honouring the past.

“The first generation of Canadian tech is dying,” Roberts told BetaKit. “And no one is telling that story. No one is writing the history book. And if they are, it very rarely gets in the hands of the next generation.”

“We tell ourselves that this ecosystem exploded out of nothing in the last 15 years, but it goes back to essentially 50 or 60 years ago,” he continued. “I think there are lessons to be learned there for today.”

John Roberts passed away Saturday after dealing with kidney issues following his retirement. Roberts leaves behind his wife, Joy, his children, Matthew and Sarah, as well as grandchildren. In his honour, Roberts’ family is establishing the John Roberts Memorial Bursary with the goal of helping the next generation of engineers bring technology out of the lab.

“It helps keep his story going,” Roberts told BetaKit.

With files from Douglas Soltys.

Meagan Simpson

Meagan Simpson

Meagan is the Associate Editor for BetaKit. A tech writer that is super proud to showcase the Canadian tech scene. Background in almost every type of journalism from sports to politics. Podcast and Harry Potter nerd, photographer and crazy cat lady.