Gimme Five – Jim Witham

Jim Witham, newly appointed chief executive officer of GaN Systems, talks to Steve Rogerson in our series of interviews for CIEonline. Witham was appointed CEO of GaN Systems earlier this year. He has more than thirty years’ experience in business development, international sales and marketing, and operations management.

Witham joined GaN Systems from Neoconix, a manufacturer of high density, high performance miniature connectors where, as president and CEO of Neoconix, he implemented strategic changes that increased revenue and resulted in the company’s acquisition by Unimicron Technology. Prior to Neoconix, he spent five years as president and CEO at Fultec Semiconductor and has also held VP sales and marketing positions at Aegis Semiconductor and Genoa.

Other career highlights include senior executive positions at Raychem, including director of Asian sales and marketing, based in Japan. As an engineering specialist at General Dynamics’ space system division during the 1980s, he worked on fluid systems for the Space Shuttle and was on mission control for interplanetary missions.

Witham holds an MBA from Harvard and both MS and BS with distinction in mechanical engineering from Stanford University. His hobbies include hiking and travel, but more interestingly football – he has been to six World Cups and has played in 20 different countries. He is a past captain of both the Stanford University and Harvard Business School soccer teams.

1. What tempted you to join GaN Systems?

I have a long history in the power transistor area in silicon, gallium nitride and silicon carbide so I have had my finger on the pulse of this market for some time and I always knew GaN would be a big player. I am excited to join this company in its early days. 2014 is a big growth year for the company, first on the sales and marketing front. We are expanding our presence around the globe and that is something I have done in other companies. We are also doing more in research and development and I have a lot of experience in that area. I am looking forward to enjoying my experience here.

2. You worked on the Space Shuttle programme. Do you think they were correct to scrap it three years ago?

I think it is sad that the US doesn’t have a manned space flight capability and they have to use Russia’s. Some incredible things have come out of the space programme and I am sad to see it go away. I have worked on proposed advanced versions of the Space Shuttle that are more efficient and a cheaper way of getting people into space. I think there should be a continuous presence in space with researchers, scientists and doctors testing ideas and taking advantage of zero gravity. We need to invest in these areas. If we spend the money on research, humans are incredible and will come up with things that are beneficial to mankind.

3. What hurdles does gallium nitride still have to overcome to take over from silicon in power electronics?

If you look at it from a device perspective, the data sheets for GaN make it clear that our customers can design great products with this. The next stage is gaining the confidence of the design community and that is the hurdle that needs to be overcome. So, you make lots of wafers, you take lots of data, you do reliability testing to show you have a reliable product that they can use consistently.

4. Who will win the World Cup this year?

That’s a tough one. I don’t think it will be the USA. We have a group of death and it will be difficult to get out of the group. Home advantage is big, so I think I’ll go with Brazil. For an outside chance, there is Belgium. They have some really good young players. It is an incredible army of young talent. They can surprise.

I have been to six World Cups. I don’t have tickets this time, and I have only got vague plans, but that is typical. I usually leave it late, so don’t be surprised if I’m there. Of the six World Cups, I have only had tickets in advance for one. I just show up. If you have desire, you can always get some tickets.

5. You spent five years working in Yokohama in Japan. What did you find were the main cultural differences compared with the USA when it came to doing business?

It is a really different world. There is a lot more structure in Japan. The expectations of what the supplier should give to the customer are very different. It is a lot more formal. There are a lot more data you have to give.

Part of our success in Japan was that we were very Japanese. We had application engineers that spoke the language and could work with our customers. We had a factory there with engineers who could explain how the products were made. That whole support network was important for doing business there.

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