Marvell co-founder talks technology in education, R&D

Weili Dai, co-founder of Marvell, has become a key ally of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) founder Nicholas Negroponte. She talks technology in education and R&D.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor on

Weili Dai, co-founder of Marvell, has become a key ally of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) founder Nicholas Negroponte, who aims to bring inexpensive technology to poor countries.

Indeed, Dai's company has launched a bevy of educational efforts. In March, Marvell, a fabless semiconductor company, highlighted the $99 Moby tablet. Marvell is also working on the next-generation XO 3 tablet/e-book. And on Sept. 27, Marvell launched a $100,000 application competition for developers. The goal: Entice developers to create apps to transform the way students learn.

Developer applications will be accepted from Oct. 10 to Nov. 10 at Mobylize.org. For Dai, the only female co-founder of a major chipmaker in the world, educational apps are critical. Apps will drive student learning.

We caught up with Dai to talk education, research and development and the maturity of the tablet market.

On her relationship with Negroponte, Dai said she met him five years ago and they talked about moral causes and technology. Marvell had the mesh networking technology used in the original XO. "The priority was affordable technology for poor countries," she said. "Nicholas set a bar. In many ways, he invented the e-book, netbook microcosm and form factor. The other piece was to make those devices affordable."

What's the OLPC's role today? Dai said that in many respects the OLPC is a design shop---something Negroponte has noted after laying out plans for the next-generation XO. "OLPC sets a bar and the industry takes it and commercializes it," she said. "It's like the old days where Bell Labs would create and others would commercialize it."

Regarding tablet computers, Dai said the devices hold a lot of promise for the education market. The guts of the tablet---what Dai calls the "pizza dough"---are largely set. What needs to happen is that the sauce of this pizza analogy---the operating system---and apps (the toppings) need to bake. To Dai, the toppings are most important. "How can we create the right toppings for education and make applications that are delicious for teaching?" asks Dai. "The key is encouraging developers to make applications where the teacher has a voice and can get the job done."

Dai recently spoke at Education Nation, a forum sponsored by NBC. At the forum, Dai demonstrated Marvell technologies for the education market. The gear included a tablet and a plug that would send classroom content to students. "Tablets are a way to connect teachers with students," she said. "Tablets can be customized teaching tools."

What's the magic price for tablets in education?
Dai said $99 for a tablet is the price point that matters. "We are all working toward affordability in poor countries," she said. "Cost is a function of volume and if you do great stuff it'll come."

On the mix between profit and altruism, Dai acknowledged that the education market is a "big market opportunity." If a company can develop the right mix of hardware, software and applications and leverage it to the education market it will do good and well from a business standpoint. "We have to understand what teachers want," said Dai.

How should the U.S. think differently about education?
"What made the U.S. so great was that it was open to bringing the best talent around the world to this country. This is specifically true for the high tech industry. What makes Silicon Valley so special? It's the environment. You have the top schools, a mix of talent from all over the world and labs," she said. "It's the possibility and passion of innovation."

The labs part of the recipe seems to be on the decline, argued Dai, who wants a Bell Labs scenario to return. "The mission should be to invent without the pressure of making products," she said. Sure, companies like IBM have massive R&D arms, but it's not the same as Bell Labs was. "For this scale of research the government has to be involved to collaborate with industry and top universities," said Dai.

Is the U.S. losing its education edge?
Dai said that the U.S. is falling behind. She compared and contrasted the respect for teachers in the U.S. vs. China. "In Shanghai, teachers were like a third parent," she said. "What teachers say sticks in your head. There's respect for teacher." Dai isn't so sure teachers garner that respect in the U.S. "We fundamentally have to change to bring back respect for the teacher."


OLPC’s Negroponte: Tablets must be a ‘constructionist’ medium


This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards