Cherng Jia “CJ” Hwang (Ph.D. ’66)
Diamond Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence
In the basement of the old University of Washington Electrical Engineering (UW EE) building, Cherng Jia “CJ” Hwang was first introduced to semiconductor lasers. Here he worked with UW EE Professor Lynn Watt as a research assistant. These early days in the lab would be the foundation to Hwang’s career.
Dr. Hwang’s fascination with lasers became entrepreneurial vision. As the inventor of the first long-life semiconductor laser, Hwang revolutionized the way we interact and operate as a society. At the beginning of his career, lasers ran on 15 amps of current, which required them to only be used in small batches due to combustion concerns. To solve this, Dr. Hwang built a laser that could operate at room temperature, allowing lasers to be implemented for long-term operation, leading to significant breakthroughs in medical, defense and communications efforts.
This single invention was instrumental in making early lasers operable today. Lasers today are embedded within everyday platitudes, infiltrating the human experience. They are in active under the price scanner at a supermarket and within the lens of a cellphone camera.
Over his 40-year career, Dr. Hwang would found three companies. His first company, General Optronics Corporation, was the world’s first semiconductor laser manufacturer. Hwang used the tools developed at General Optronics and applied them to meet medical and surgical needs.
His next company, Applied Optronics Corporations, laid the foundation for continued medical innovations in diagnostic testing, robotic surgery and cancer treatment through the production of high-power semiconductor lasers and portable subsystems that could replace bulky conventional surgical lasers.
Dr. Hwang wanted to not only advance semiconductor laser development, he sought to expand implementation for wide-spread impact. His third company, Optronics International in Taiwan, produced semiconductor lasers with new material composition and structure that are optimized for low loss transmission over optical fibers.
The company, which operates like the U.S. corporation AT&T, was responsible for developing and commercializing semiconductor lasers and subsystems for high speed fiber optic communications. As communication plays a central role in fundamental societal operations, Dr. Hwang’s company was a source of growth for Taiwan.
“Not every engineer can be a successful entrepreneur,” UW Electrical Engineering Professor Emeritus Martin Afromowitz said. “Only a handful have the kind of vision that CJ had. It takes a very special kind of person to pursue that.”
The Entrepreneurial Excellence award recognizes a UW COE graduate, who best exemplifies the ideals of entrepreneurship. Dr. Hwang is a true entrepreneur. His three companies sprung from entrepreneurial curiosity, were successful in their groundbreaking inventions and made a positive impact on the world through medical and surgical applications.
“It was a great honor to receive the Diamond Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence,” Dr. Hwang said. “Even though I have been retired for more than 10 years, it still means a lot to me because it is an affirmation of my achievement after many years of hard work. It is also a reward for my wife Elizabeth for all the support and encouragement she gave me throughout those years.”
Since retiring in 2005, Dr. Hwang continues to make a significant impact. Recently, he and Elizabeth Hwang established the The Cherng Jia and Elizabeth Yun Hwang Endowed Professorship. The professorship, housed in UW EE, is built on the Hwangs’ shared vision of making life better for those with paralysis. It supports the critical advancement of rehabilitation technologies for spinal cord injury and stroke.
“CJ is a rare talent, one who sees large-scale potential in a single invention, transforming and adapting it for global impact,” UW EE Professor and Chair Radha Poovendran said. “Through all of his extensive accomplishments and commitment to societal impact, he has made UW EE incredibly proud to call him an alum.”
Jean Wang (Ph.D. ’07)
Diamond Award for Early Career Achievement
As one of the founders and the first woman on the Project Glass team at Google, Jean Wang ushered Google Glass through 10 design iterations, constructing a groundbreaking product to completely disrupt the current market.
“She wouldn’t take on a project didn’t involve some level of driving and pushing the boundaries of technology,” Eliot Kim, principal industrial designer at Google and Wang’s colleague said.
Google Glass led a new wave of human/machine interfaces, signaled a pivotal change in accessible computing devices and laid the foundation for modern AR/VR hardware. Dr. Wang was a key member behind this level of impact.
Her technical contributions added complex novel optical features while addressing challenges in design and product reliability. Her technical acumen, leadership and execution skills soon led to her promotion to chief of staff.
Dr. Wang currently works at Amazon as a strategic initiatives lead. She is building a product and team from the ground up. Dr. Wang has been a pioneering force behind several novel technological advancements, demonstrating extraordinary leadership in developing innovative solutions and producing exceptional ideas. For Dr. Wang, the novelty of what she works fuels her passion for innovation.
“Being able to work with an amazing team to create and launch a customer experience that does not exist is the most exciting aspect of my work,” Dr. Wang said.
Dr. Wang’s passion for innovation is grounded in her experiences at UW EE. While at the university, Dr. Wang took this inventive spirit and embraced new challenges and new avenues of thought.
“My time at UW EE had tremendous impact on my career due to the people I met who encouraged and challenged me to grow, think and explore,” Dr. Wang said. “Lih Lin, my Ph.D. advisor, and Babak Parviz, who co-advised, continue to be inspirations for me. The whole department provided great education and support and the variety of courses I took at UW from the Foster Business School, language department or dance added even more depth to my experience. The career I have today is because of the connections and learning developed from my time at UW.”
During her academic years, Dr. Wang received an NSF grant and earned both her MS and PhD in electrical engineering in only four years. Her graduate work resulted in seven referred journals and 15 conference papers.
The Early Career Achievement award recognizes outstanding graduates of the UW COE, who demonstrate exceptional achievement during the first 10 years of an engineering career.
“The award is truly an unexpected and meaningful honor,” Dr. Wang said. “I feel grateful for the recognition and somewhat surprised that ten years have already flown by since graduating.”
Within the last ten years, Dr. Wang has already achieved more than most engineers throughout their career. In addition to her work on Project Glass, Wang was a founding member of the robotic surgery team at Google Life Sciences, now Verily Life Sciences, leading the development of optics and imaging in novel robotic surgery platforms that enable improved patient outcomes and greater efficiency for a range of procedures.
Dr. Wang’s diversity in experience goes beyond excellent technical efficiency. It illustrates an individual with a deep-rooted vision for impact.
“While at UW EE, Jean was an exceptional student,” UW EE Professor and Chair Radha Poovendran said. “When speaking with her advisor, Professor Lih Lin, she knew that Jean would go on to achieve a lot throughout her career. Jean’s impact on society and technology does not end with her work on Google Glass; she will continue to foster global change.”