Ron did his graduate work at Stanford then conducted seminal research at Intel and AMD before starting his own consultancy.
- how Ron’s background prepared him for consulting about patents
- what are the different types of expert witness services out there
- who hires expert witnesses
For the full text transcript see below the fold:
Max: Welcome, all! Max of the Accidental Engineer here. Today we have the pleasure of Ron joining us. Thanks for joining us, Ron!
Ron: I am happy to join.
Max: Do you mind sharing for our audience what your background is? What you do today?
Ron: Sure. I’m originally from Israel and I have been working in the semiconductor electronics industry for more than 30 years.
In Israel the system is a bit different. You typically first go to the army and after that you go to engineering school or any other kind of school.
One of the biggest differences is that you have to already know what profession you want to study when you start school, which is very tough.
I didn’t know which one I wanted, but I’m interesting in many areas of engineering and science. I happened to read an article about material sciences when I was still in the army, and it sounded really neat because it is interdisciplinary and you work with many fields developing new technology.
While I was doing undergraduate I was interested in continuing past the B.S. degree and I looked at several schools. One was Stanford. I looked at the top schools that were doing some work regarding electronic materials which was a very fast-moving field. Basically being able to create semiconductors depends on the property of the material, but on the other side you have to understand all the electronic aspects of it.
I applied to several of the top schools and got accepted at Stanford so I came to the United States for graduate school and spent a couple of years at Stanford working on semiconductors for the electronic industry.
Max: You now own a consultancy where you often do expert witness types of consulting on the topics that you have been working on for the last three decades.
For people who are curious about your early career, where you finished your time in the army in Israel; you moved to Stanford, to Palo Alto, California.
How old were you? And what was the progression, where you finished your graduate studies and went into industry?
Ron: When I finished the army I was about 21. I finished my undergrad in three years. In the last year, I had already accepted a job in the industry in Israel, but I also applied for graduate school here. So I was roughly 23 when I came here and started at Stanford on my master’s and then the graduate degree afterward, and did a thesis for an electrical engineering professor.
In those days, the semiconductor industry was at the center of the Silicon Valley. When I finished at Stanford there were about 20-30 companies that I could choose to work at developing new semiconductor chips for the electronic industry.
Then I interviewed at two companies and one of them was Intel. So I chose Intel–even though the other company offered a bit higher salary–since Intel was leading a lot of the development and the new ideas in the industry at the time.
You had to work a bit harder there, but I thought it would be more interesting and advanced development which is what I was interested in. At the time, they came out with the first commercial flash, or what was the predecessor, the building block for the flash, called EEPROM. This is what flash memory is built on.
Now, a video or regular camera, or any equipment that needs to store that sort of information uses flash. This was really the first time that somebody created such a commercial product, so it was really exciting to work on it. The fact that I understood the material, electronic and circuitry was beneficial.
As time progressed I developed more and more deep knowledge about it and I worked for ~4 different semiconductor companies until the mid ’90s. I worked in various areas.
In some of them I worked in developing the manufacturing technology, but also in developing the circuits to make the product. I have several patents, for example, combining a flash or escript ram together with dynamic memory into one product.
Then in the mid ’90s I opened my own consulting firm. The reason I did it was because already then I realized that it is not like you work for 40 or 50 years at a company and they give you a gold watch and this is it!
Already then the industry was changing fast. In the ’80s the Japanese were really taking over a lot of semiconductor companies and a lot of them disappeared.
When I started there were 20 companies to choose for a job, but already in the mid ’90s, in the Bay Area there were only maybe 5 or 10. So I realized that you cannot really depend that a company will take care of you for the rest of your life. Nowadays it seems like a ridiculous concept, but during the ’70s and ’80s people would work at a company until they retire–IBM or other places like this.
So as I mentioned, I opened my consulting firm in the mid ’90s and consulted for semiconductor companies. Somebody that knew me from Intel was looking for someone who could testify for a patent. He felt that some Japanese company was stealing his technology. I already had some patents on my own at that time. The first one I got when I was in graduate school at Stanford and then several early in Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and also several afterward.
I understood what are the general issues that you have to worry about in a litigation case of protecting your intellectual property of a patent. So I said I would give it a try. It sounded like an interesting opportunity and it was really fascinating. When you work as an expert witness you need to have a very deep knowledge in a specific field.
There are expert witnesses in many different fields; the only requirement is that they would have a deeper understanding of it. It could be developed either through working a few years in the industry or it can be from academia.
The only problem with people from academia is that they bring more theoretical understanding and they don’t always understand how stuff is done in the real world.
So I worked on this case for a few months. It’s not continuous work—you work for a few days a week and then a few weeks later you do something else. Then you are being deposed on it. Nowadays the deposition is limited to one or maybe two days at the most, and each day it is seven or eight hours.
You usually write a report and give an opinion about the technology being infringed or what the patent is about. The deposition is very tough because you have to remember very accurately what you wrote in that report.
A deposition involves trying to clarify what you said in your report. You want to make sure that the report is interpreted accurately and correctly and not taken out of context. So you have to be really prepared and be on your toes. You cannot talk with your attorney all the time you are doing this deposition.
This was the first time I was deposed and in those days a deposition could go multiple days. They don’t set in advance how many days so it ended up being four days over a couple of months. During that time you don’t talk at all to the attorney so you don’t get any feedback.
As an expert witness you deal with both the technical aspect of a project and you delve very deeply. Attorneys do not necessarily have experience in your specific industry, but are sharp and they can quickly get familiar with the field. They usually don’t know the different technical terms and buzzwords used, but you can educate them. You have to be careful, because some of these words change their meaning over the decades.
Max: So this isn’t such an easy career to break into unless you have deep experience in a pretty specific topic where there is litigation happening.
There aren’t really people who can apply to these jobs of “expert witness” I guess is what I am trying to say.
Ron: Usually you cannot apply for it because the lawyers like to find you themselves. There are some agency brokers who keep a database of people who specialize in any field under the sun. There are experts in plumbing, in building material, in any field that there is some litigation happening.
It’s not just litigation–investors also like to talk with people who have experience in the industry.
One of the important things is that you cannot be an employee of a company in the industry while you apply for these jobs, because they don’t want to hire a competitor to look in their secret information or they don’t want to use information learned from your current job.
They want people who are knowledgeable in an area but not actively employed by somebody who is a competitor. One of the first questions they will ask you is if you have any conflict working against company X, Y or Z.
So there are brokers that keep a database. You give them your resume and keywords and so on–both investors and attorneys find people this way.
But nowadays people can find you if you have an online presence. It’s relatively easy to establish presence online. I did it roughly 12 years ago when I created my website and started putting articles on topics related to electronics, especially the semiconductor industry.
Max: What are the types of services that lawyers are specifically looking for? Or like you described, maybe not lawyers, but investors who want an expert’s opinion.
What are the different types of expert consulting engagements that are out there?
Ron: There are several different areas. There is one area they call the “reverse engineering” field. For example, every time a new iPhone comes out there is a company called “iFixit” which Apple acquired.
Within about a day from a product release they have reports detailing all the parts that are inside the product. Usually investors or people that believe that Apple is infringing on their patent are interested in these reports.
There are also agencies that just have databases and are collecting broker or expert services. These are sometimes called “expert networks” but these are usually for a 1-2 hour engagement. And again, you send them your information, they keep it in their database, and then when an investor would like to know more about your industry they will contact you. It’s not just investors–for example banks and consulting companies will sometimes use these services to learn more deeply about the industry.
There are two types of expert witnesses.
You have a “consulting” expert and you have a “testifying” expert.
The consulting expert is somebody who works behind the scenes for attorneys. Your job is to read through all this information and educate the attorneys on the issues of their case.
The second type of expert is the testifying expert. These are people who have more experience and that would feel comfortable being on the stand in front of a jury. They see more refined information, because the law firm would deal with the consulting expert first to try to look at all the information and see what is important, what is not, etc.
I had a case that I was working quite a few years ago as a consultant. After working for a few months I felt that the company that I was working for had a weak case. When you tell them this,you are basically…this will be the end of this project. But I felt that it wasn’t a strong enough case and I told them that and it was the end of that case.
Maybe a year later they ended up changing direction as a result, and the same law firm came to me for another case because they felt that I would tell them what is the real story.
One of my biggest cases was ~10 years ago—I was an expert for Rambus and this was a case that had been going at that time for seven years. They had a patent that somebody developed at Stanford and Rambus acquired the technology and they felt that they deserved some royalties.
They went after a lot of the big manufacturers. In those days, the dealer in production was selling like $40 billion a year. Nowadays, the only industry that is selling more is flash memory.
Since it is such a big industry and the manufacturing cost and the profit is very low none of the companies wanted to pay Rambus.
Because of my understanding of both material science and circuitry I was able to find some aspects that weren’t thought about before, and they end up winning this case. They got ~$900 million from one of the competitors. This of course helps my credibility and shows that I had experience. The jury said that I was more believable than the opposing expert. You have to appear genuine and just be yourself, and to be very knowledgeable about the material before you do the deposition and the court appearance.
Max: What do the contemporary legal battles look like today versus what they might have looked like 20 years ago? What are the different patents today that are controversial?
Ron: This area has been evolving both because the legal landscape has changed but also because semiconductors have changed through the years.
You have to keep up with the technology. You go to conferences, read stuff online, etc.
But one thing that you have to realize: when companies sue about patents, they don’t sue about the patent that was issued last week. Most of the patents were issued between 5-15 years ago!
So you have to understand where the industry was 5-15 years ago, because this is the expertise that will be sought out.
Max: Does your testifying expert witness work take you traveling to courts?
Ron: Usually depositions happen wherever the expert is located. Not always, but often. There have been cases where there are many experts involved and you do it in some other location. I have been in DC and Denver, so I have been in several different places to testify.
There are some other specialties, for example people in software that are evaluating code have to go on-site. Basically you have to go in a room. Maybe you can bring a pen and paper with you. You spend eight hours a day or whatever, but I am not a software guy. The people who are software guys, they go to these kinds of places and they can spend weeks in some very remote, very boring places, spending hours checking code.
Max: There is a guy who I listened give a talk at a conference about this topic of having been an expert witness in a software case. He told how he had to go in there to do the forensics, to try and evaluate whether there was patent infringement.
He had to figure out what minimal tools were available on the computers that the opposing party to the case provided to him, because they have no interest in him succeeding at his forensics.
You don’t often have to travel to a warehouse somewhere to look at the device?
Ron: No, not typically. Nowadays, with everything available electronically information can be sent via email. I have the opportunity to work while I am traveling. As long as you have Internet and you have time available you can do this work. It doesn’t have a constant flow. It sort of comes and goes, and you have to be flexible in your schedule.
Max: Is there anything that you think I should have asked you or that you would like to cover?
Ron: Mm-hmm. What you study in school and what you do in work is very different. Often you don’t know it until you start working. You should go with which field interests you. Then you are more likely to succeed. You are more likely to enjoy what you do.
I have had this consulting company for more than 20 years and I realized the impact of the Internet in the late ’90s. At different times I added more tools. I have a Twitter account and I have a blog. I have a website. And I taught myself how to use the software and other tools to write on it. It wasn’t so easy when I started teaching myself stuff like this, because a lot of the tools were not as developed. But you should be flexible and be open to new and different ways and methods, and see what works and what interests you. Then you will do well, whichever field.
Max: I figure before we close, we should also take an opportunity to plug your consulting business. I don’t think we have mentioned the name of your business yet. It is RMG and Associates?
Ron: Yeah, RMG and Associates.
Max: We will include links in the show notes to your website, as well as your Twitter, and potentially even your email address for anyone who wants to get ahold of Ron. Ron, thank you for joining us!
Ron: Thanks. I enjoyed it!