Terry Gilton is a Partner with Celesta Capital. His 37-year career in the semiconductor industry includes R&D in materials, memory and processing devices, sensors, and algorithms, as well as extensive experience bringing these technologies to mass production. Terry began his career in R&D at Micron Technology. He was VP of R&D at Micron Imaging for the rise of CMOS imager technology, delivering the sensor to the Motorola Razr and first iPhone. Terry was a key part of the executive team that managed the spin-out of Micron Imaging to become Aptina Imaging. He was recruited by Apple to create a sensor technology development team as its Senior Director of Sensor Technology, reporting to the SVP of Engineering. At Apple, Terry’s team was involved in all product lines and all sensing modalities, and he was personally responsible for many technologies used in Apple products. Learn more about Terry’s career path below:
Of all the fields in technology, how did you end up in the world of sensing?
I’ve always been a geek. I was a HAM radio operator when I was 13; I built my own transmitter and receiver; right out of the geek handbook! As an undergraduate at the University of Arkansas I started off as Pre-Med, but I didn’t connect very well with the other Pre-Med students. I felt like they weren’t as curious about the science as I was; they just cared about the grades. I received the “Outstanding Freshman Chemistry Award,” so I ended up getting my bachelor’s degree in Chemistry, and I focused on physical chemistry and the chemistry of surfaces.
I ended up applying to the University of California at Santa Barbara because there was this brilliant new professor who was building a new surface chemistry lab. So, I drove to Santa Barbara, and began work on my PhD in light interactions with solids, and in particular with molecules on surfaces. This led to being involved in early developments in semiconductor processing and the then-new “Center for Quantum Electronic Structures.”
Since I had this natural surface-science-solid-state-electro-optics experience, I just naturally got into sensors. Sensors – it’s the way you get information from the outside world besides your own experience. I could ask you, “What is the temperature of your room? How many lights are on?” Or, I could measure it. Geeks like to measure stuff because you can do math and statistics and try to understand it.
I started at Micron in Feb 1990 in R&D and got into process development. After a while I built and led some new process development teams. I became involved in adapting the memory manufacturing process to make an image sensor with it. This was unique at the time for a memory company. The team succeeded, and our first sensor worked great. And that was the beginning of Micron Imaging. We won the Motorola Razr business along with our module partner Flextronics. The whole market for CMOS imaging was really just beginning. Micron was, at its core, a memory company, so they decided to sell us to a private equity group, et Voila!, there was Aptina. We were the best and biggest CMOS imager company in the world for a while.
I heard you then ended up at Apple. How did that come about?
After Aptina I started my own company using patented technology I created at Micron. One day, I got a call from an Apple recruiter in late 2010. They were looking for someone to create a new sensor technology team. It was a tough decision to leave my startup, but the opportunity was too compelling to ignore. I was there for three years. It was a great environment, the company culture was like nothing else I had ever experienced, and the people were amazing. I really liked Apple; I still have friends there.
Nic Brathwaite, who was Aptina’s first CEO and later on the board, asked me to rejoin the company to run R&D again. It turns out there was an offer on the table by ON Semiconductor to acquire Aptina. I rebuilt my team, helped with the transition, and then I left to “retire” and spend time with my family. Nic reached out sometime later and asked me to do some technical advising for Celesta Capital (then WRV Capital). As I recall, the first company I worked on was Atonarp, where I helped with the technical due diligence. I worked with Tonbo Imaging, Kyulux, and a number of other companies. When Fund 4 began, I became a Partner.
Do you also teach?
Oh yes. Teaching is a great love of mine. In 1992 I joined Boise State as an adjunct professor; I taught Physical Chemistry and General Chemistry. I was also on the editorial board of a new online-only journal, The Chemical Educator.
Do you see similarities between your students and some of the founders you’re advising?
Some graduate and upper division students, yes. Some of them have gone on to start companies. Founders are interesting folks. I was one, so I know how it feels—how terrifying it is to pitch investors, and how dedicated to one’s idea you must be.
What do you like to do for fun?
I play guitar and have done it semi-professionally. I play jazz mostly, but I just like the instrument. I also love fly fishing and being on the rivers and streams in Idaho and Montana.
How do you think VC investors best partner with their portfolio companies? Where can they add the most value?
The key is the word “partner.” My favorite aspect of being a VC is helping our companies with challenges that I have already struggled with. If I can help a founder get past some barriers that I have been through, and avoid most of the pain and delay, then it will make their path to seeing their idea succeed a little less fraught. Plus, I have been through many little issues a leader in the technology world could experience: hiring good people, recognizing when it is time to release others, seeing how important sales and marketing is to the success of a good product, and how to sometimes put aside your own ideas in favor of what the market wants. There are a million things one sees in a successful career of several decades in a crazy industry like technology, and helping navigate some of those can make a founder’s already impossible challenges a little easier to cope with.
Startups inevitably face challenges – where have you found inspiration to persevere and remain inspired?
Ah, well the conviction that a new technology will result in a product that is going to solve a critical problem is a necessary thing. The key is to surround yourself with people that believe the same thing, and who are willing to work alongside you until the ultimate outcome is realized. Inspiration comes from having people support this conviction, and hearing the stories of others that have succeeded. There is nothing quite like having industry luminaries like our Managing Partners show confidence and support for your dream.
What is one piece of advice you would give to founders?
One piece? Ouch. How about three? Never give up. Demand measurable progress. Find people that are smarter than you and make them successful.