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Zhiru Zhang joins ECE faculty as Assistant Professor

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Today’s cutting-edge computer chips can house up to six or seven billion transistors, a number roughly equal to the world’s population. While the comparison isn’t perfect—duplications, for example, would lower that number somewhat—the main point is the same: embedded systems are mind-bogglingly complex. And as the history of the semiconductor industry shows, they’re only going to get more complex every few years.

The research of assistant professor Zhiru Zhang, who joined the ECE faculty this fall, seeks to create tools to optimize system-on-a-chip design, particularly through automated synthesis.

 “My research is at the behavior level,” explained Zhang. “I want to develop efficient compilation tools, so we can use software languages to create efficient hardware. I think it’ll be a big step forward, and of course there are many open research challenges that make this area fascinating.”

In 2006, Zhang co-founded a company, AutoESL Design Technologies, Inc., which provided high-level synthesis solutions for designing and implementing application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) and field-programmable gate arrays. Its main product, AutoPilot, has been adopted by leading semiconductor and systems companies to enhance design productivity and quality for video, wireless, and high-performance computing applications. In 2011, AutoESL was bought by Xilinx.

Commercializing part of his research and making it available to a wider audience, Zhang said, was a valuable experience, and one that will align well with the entrepreneurialism that ECE Director Tsuhan Chen wants to emphasize at the new campus in New York City. As Zhang notes, many engineering professors also start companies on the side. In the semiconductor industry especially, where technology evolves quickly and the research/product cycle is very short, it can be very helpful to have a foot in each world, he says. Zhang himself will be a full-time academic now, but he’ll draw on the knowledge and skills he gained while working in industry. The heart of entrepreneurialism, after all, is creating something new and valuable, an experience Zhang encourages any engineer to seek out.

“Whether you want to be a professor or develop a company or find a job in a company,” he says, “having an entrepreneurial spirit will help in almost every case.”

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