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, algorithms, as well as extensive experience bringing these technologies to production. He began his career in R&D at Micron Technology where he eventually became VP of R&D for the rise of CMOS imager technology, delivering the sensor to the Motorola Razr and first iPhone. 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 current Apple products.
My favorite aspect of being with 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.
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.
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.