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Herman Fialkov

  • Born: March 23, 1922, Brooklyn, New York
  • Died: February 12, 2012, Boca Raton, Florida

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0667
Interview Dates: 24 September and 23 November 2009 and 27 February and 28 June 2010
Locations: New York City, New York; The Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, New York; Boca Raton, New York; and The Yale Club, New York City, New York
Interviewers: David C. Brock and Richard Ulrych
No. of pages: 184
Minutes: 497

  Abstract of Interview

Herman Fialkov was born in 1922 and grew up in Brooklyn, New York.  His father had emigrated from Russia to be a watchmaker but had lost sight in one eye, so the family lived on welfare during the Great Depression.  Herman’s mother had emigrated from what is now Romania to Canada, eventually meeting and marrying Herman’s father in New York City.  Always “a smart kid” who wanted to build a bridge across the Atlantic Ocean, Herman attended City College of New York, studying engineering.  He left college to take a job with Emerson Radio Corporation.  In 1942 he enlisted in the United States Army Signal Corps, but he was unable to obtain officer training there, so he transferred to the Aviation Cadet Program.  The Cadet Program suspended their officer training and assigned Herman to the infantry, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge.  When he was discharged in 1946 he went back to Emerson as a mechanical designer and to night school at New York University, where he took a degree in administrative engineering, the “administrative” part laying the foundation for his entrepreneurship.  While at Emerson he acquired the nickname “Hammering Herman” for his handy way with a hammer, and designed a television antenna for his first patent.  From there he went to Radio Receptor Corporation.  Seeing a market for transistors he founded General Transistor Corporation, whose first major customer was UNIVAC.  In 1960 General Transistor Corporation merged with General Instrument Corporation and began making integrated circuits.  Then Fialkov started a microelectronics division, which was eventually spun off into Microchip Technology, Inc.  He next ventured into cable television, convincing General Instrument to purchase Jerrold Electronics.  Jerrold, through several incarnations, has evolved into Comcast.

Fialkov invested in Arthur Rock’s venture capital firm, Rock and Davis, and became intrigued by venture capital.  He founded his own venture capital firm, Geiger and Fialkov, with Richard Geiger, and specialized in startup companies.  He ended that firm and set up Aleph Null and PolyVentures.  In the last fifty years his personal and venture capital investments have financed the startup or early development of many important companies, including Intel; Teledyne; Electroglas, Inc.; Standard Microsystems; General Signal; Globecomm Systems; and several Israeli companies.  He details the beginnings, the spin-offs, and the present statuses of these companies and the people involved.  He recently retired from eight companies and three philanthropies, retaining only his position on the board of InEnTec.  He is fascinated by InEnTec’s attempts to develop a process that turns municipal waste into energy and hazardous waste into building material.

Technology and electronics fields developed extremely rapidly, and Fialkov took more classes to learn about licensing and patents.  In the early days one obtained patents to exchange, later for revenue.  Fialkov describes the cyclical nature of business and the general economy, saying that recessions come and go and that an investor must be patient.  He explains that a successful venture capital firm can expect 30% failures, 30% average performers, 30% moneymakers, and 10% wild successes.  He attributes his choice of venture capital area to his love of technology, a “vibrant, changing technological environment.”

Fialkov talks throughout the interview about his method for choosing worthy companies; the importance of assessing the market and correctly evaluating the people involved; several people who inspired or impressed him; his grandsons’ entry into venture capital, one with startups and the other with developed companies.  He loved his work, saying he could have retired at forty but did not want to give up the “fun” he was having.  Though he now lives in Florida, he says he never changed his domicile for a job.  He has been lucky, he claims, and he is glad to be able to continue to engage in several philanthropic endeavors.  He loves his family and is proud that his grandsons have followed him into venture capital.  His contributions have been honored many times.  He never did build a physical bridge across the Atlantic Ocean, but he knows that he certainly built a bridge with his support of communications and technology.

  Education

1942 Studies in Mechanical Engineering City College of New York
1943 Power Equipment Maintenance Signal Corps, U.S. Army
1943 Fundamentals of Radio Signal Corps, U.S. Army
1951 Bachelor of Administrative Engineering New York University
1952 Graduate studies in Mechanical Engineering New York University

  Professional Experience

Emerson Radio Corporation

1941 - 1942

Assistant Mechanical Engineer

Emerson Radio Corporation

1946 - 1947

Mechanical Engineer

Signal Corps and Infantry, U.S. Army

1942 - 1946

Service

Mutual Broadcasting System

1947 - 1949

Engineering Department

Radio Receptor

1949 - 1951

Mechanical Designer

Radio Receptor

1951 - 1954

Chief Mechanical Designer

General Transistor Corporation

1954 - 1960

Co-founder and President

General Instruments Corporation

1960 - 1967

Group Vice President

General Instruments Corporation

1967 - 1968

Senior Vice President of Development

Geiger & Fialkov Fund

1968 - 1977

Partner

Aleph Null Fund

1978 - 1987

Partner

Poly Ventures

1987 - 1997

Partner

Newlight Associates

1997 - 2004

Partner

  Honors

1945

Bronze Star and two Oak Leaf Clusters, U.S. Army

1947

Conspicuous Service Cross, State of New York

1968

Leadership Award, United Jewish Appeal

1978

Israeli Leadership Award, State of Israel Bonds

1980

Fellow, Polytechnic Institute of New York

1987

Special Recognition Award, National Engineer Week

1988

Builder of Technion,  American Society for Technion

1988

Long Island Distinguished Leadership Award

1990

Tech Island Award, Long Island Forum for Technology

1993

Presidential Medal, Polytechnic University

1996

Distinguished Alumni Citation, Polytechnic University

1999

Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Lifetime Achievement as a supporter of entrepreneurship

1999

Outstanding Mechanical Engineering Alumnus of the Century,
  Polytechnic University

2000

Alex Grunwald Award for Enhancing Long Island’s Technology, IEEE Long Island Section

2001

Long Island Software Award

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Early Years 1

Born and grew up in Brooklyn, New York.  Father out of work; family on welfare.  Great Depression.  Parents’ background.  Wanted to build bridge across Atlantic Ocean.  Enrolled in engineering program at City College of New York.  Left college to take job at Emerson Radio corporation.  Enlisted in United States Army Signal Corps.  Aviation Cadet Program.  Infantry.  Battle of the Bulge.  Picture taken on Siegfried Line; now in history books. Back to Emerson after the war.  Night school at New York University; degree in administrative engineering.  Nicknamed “Hammering Herman.”  First patent, for television antenna.  New job at Radio Receptor Company.

General Transistor Corporation Years 8

Founded General Transistor to make germanium alloy transistors.  Business slow at first until UNIVAC built File-Computer System.  PNP transistors.  Took over NPN business from Raytheon.  Control Data Corporation and switching transistors.  Going public.  Merger with General Instrument Corporation.  Making silicon transistors.  First American electronics manufacturing plant in Taiwan.  Fialkov starts microelectronics division after merger; eventually division spun off into Microchip Technology.  General Instrument eventually sold to Motorola. 

Beginning Acquisitions 19

Sees the future in cable television.  Helped General Instrument buy Jerrold Electronics.  Founded Standard Microsystems Corporation.  With Richard Geiger set up venture capital firm, Geiger and Fialkov.  First investment with Intel.   Invested in startups:  Teledyne, Inc.; Microsemi; AMI.  Ended firm after eight years.  Founded Aleph Null.  Set up PolyVentures, stayed on its board for twenty years.

Recapitulates Previous Discussion 39

Emerson to Teletone to Radio Receptor.  General Transistor.  Transistors at first mostly for hearing aids and then computers.  Unreliability and high cost of early transistors.  Licensing and patenting.  Making crystals.  People along the way.  Transistor market broadened to semiconductors and computers.  Sees that microelectronics the coming thing.  Standard Microsystems.  Memory and modems.  Tough times in 1970's.  Making communications chips ancillary to microprocessors.  Local networking. 

Reflections on Career and Colleagues 89

From germanium transistors to silicon integrated circuits to MOS circuits.  Liked being part of “vibrant, changing technological environment.”  Retirement at forty certainly possible but unattractive; loved his work and still misses it.  People who impressed or inspired him.  Companies he invested in or started or developed or all three.  Other officers of companies and fellow investors.  What has happened to all his companies and their people.  Visit to Israel; possible relationship to Chaim Weizmann.  Changes in venture capital workings.  Entry of Israeli companies into technology. 

Bridging the Atlantic Ocean 122

InEnTec and InEnTec Chemical.  Making energy and building material from waste.  Grandsons and their businesses.  Importance of ability to judge people when investing in startups.  Discusses more companies.  Globecomm Systems—Fialkov’s bridge—still going strong.  

Index 169

  About the Interviewers

David C. Brock

David C. Brock is a senior research fellow with the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. As a historian of science and technology, he specializes in the history of semiconductor science, technology, and industry; the history of instrumentation; and oral history. Brock has studied the philosophy, sociology, and history of science at Brown University, the University of Edinburgh, and Princeton University.

In the policy arena Brock recently published Patterning the World: The Rise of Chemically Amplified Photoresists, a white-paper case study for the Center’s Studies in Materials Innovation. With Hyungsub Choi he is preparing an analysis of semiconductor technology roadmapping, having presented preliminary results at the 2009 meeting of the Industry Studies Association.

Richard Ulrych

Richard Ulrych is the director of institutional grants and strategic projects at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

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