Visiting with Dr. Steve Ahn, KAIST K-School Professor and Founder of Leadis Technology

Dr. Steve Ahn from KAIST K-School with National Taiwan University Global MBA students

Earlier this week, the NTU Garage – National Taiwan University’s startup incubator – hosted Dr. Steve Ahn, a professor from Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology. Just call it KAIST. Dr. Ahn gave a room full of MBA students a presentation titled, “My Journey from an Engineer to an Entrepreneur.”

Before KAIST, Steve Ahn founded a company delivering color LCD drivers for cell phones (amongst other innovations) and took the company public. At KAIST, he’s a leader of the K-School, their 1-year entrepreneurship program.

Even though he has an EMBA from INSEAD – Tsinghua University and teaches business school, he says he wouldn’t have done things any differently. Maybe that’s exactly why he’s teaching. I suppose when you’re someone who’s made the choices he has, it’s hard to question them, anyway. Besides, what’s the point of looking back? His connections do help get companies to bring their problems to K-School for students to solve. That’s a huge asset for any school that stakes a claim on innovation and entrepreneurship.

What I ended up learning from Steve Ahn was his attitude towards, well, everything. I say this because usually these presentations are too preachy, or self-serving. But Steve can balance humble and humble brag as well as anyone else I’ve met. Very matter of fact and open about what the process was like between leaving Samsung to start his own venture, Leadis Technology; taking the company public, and leaving it to take on his bucket list.

He’s basically the kind of professor that can talk you into KAIST K-School without saying much because he’s just the way he is. He also sounds more and more like the world’s most interesting man once you get to know how he spent his time, after selling his stake in Leadis.

  • Climbing mountains. Mt. Fuji, 20 times.
  • Moved to Beijing to learn Chinese at Tsinghua University
  • Cooking school in Spain and France
  • Spent a year as a winemaker in Melbourne, Australia
  • Built his own home on Jeju Island
  • Walked the Camino del Santiago in Spain
  • Returned to Europe to learn how to make his own furniture (see below)

不錯,不錯 (not bad, not bad)。

Lessons from Dr. Steve Ahn’s Journey

Korean companies tend to hire top talent from universities to innovate from within, instead of buying startups and companies — unless they’re in a field like artificial intelligence or dealing with Industry 4.0.

South Korea was able to get ahead of Japan in certain areas, because compared to Japan, there are fewer companies in Korea hiring the top talent. Also, a massive amount of resources, “do or die,” was put into it.

Getting investors isn’t necessarily more or less difficult in Asia, even though Leadis was headquartered in Silicon Valley. It depends on product-market fit.

You want your IPO to go quickly because the window of opportunity to get the most money may close quickly. I always felt this was important because the longer you wait, the more people speculate about your competitive position. Speculation decreases confidence, and less confidence cuts your valuation.

March-April is the best time to walk the Camino del Santiago. It gets too hot in the summers. Great, since I was thinking of doing it in April.

Before the Korean War, North Korea was wealthier than South Korea. More natural resources. What’s his point? The world can change quickly.

Dr. Steve Ahn at National Taiwan University

Master of Ceremonies at SEMICON Taiwan 2017, for Taiwan’s #1 Industry — Semiconductors

If there’s one area Taiwan is #1, it’s semiconductors. I was fortunate to be master of ceremonies for National Taiwan University, a host of SEMICON Taiwan — one of the industry’s largest conferences. Semiconductor = SEMICON, get it?

Master of Ceremonies at SEMICON Taiwan 2017 for National Taiwan University's High-Tech Facility International Forum, put on by the Department of Engineering's High-Tech Facility Research Center

Taiwan used to be a world leader in toys. Now the toys are made in China, but the CPUs inside may be from Taiwan. For devices and electronics that are even smaller, higher tech, and proprietary, it’s more likely it’s made in Taiwan. You’ve heard of AirPods? AirPods are made in Taiwan by Inventec. Today, advanced manufacturing is one of Taiwan’s strengths, and semiconductors lead the way.

Smart Manufacturing and National Taiwan University

There’s a bigger opportunity for semiconductors with industrial applications than consumer goods. New CPUs can make smart anything possible. This is what the president of SEMI Taiwan says about it.

“The four major trends of applications in the market… Internet of Things (IoT), Smart Manufacturing, Smart Transportation, and Smart Medtech.” – Terry Tsao, president of SEMI Taiwan

Smart everything, basically. These are all major categories of their own, but it all starts with smart manufacturing. Knowing what is being made and how, anywhere and when in your supply chain. And, optimizing it.

“Effective Ways to Make Facility Smart.” The High-Tech Facility International Forum by National Taiwan University’s College of Engineering and its High-Tech Facility Research Center focused on the path to developing smart manufacturing facilities. This also made it one of the more popular forums at SEMICON Taiwan.

Because everything in the manufacturing future incorporates principles of information technology businesses. Especially engineering, mechanical or electrical or civil. Building these facilities ties all of that together. Smart factories simply know more about what goes into smart products.

Get to Industry 4.0: The Hot Topic of SEMICON Taiwan 2017

Many countries have initiatives in this area. In the U.S., it’s smart manufacturing. Europe calls it Industry 4.0, which is what Taiwan generally goes with (it’s catchier). China put it in their China 2025 plan. This was also the major discussion at SEMICON Taiwan. How can Taiwan become a leader in Industry 4.0?

Well, each nation faces major roadblocks. One example. China relies on imports to meet 90% of its integrated circuit needs. This is because for now, China is doing mass manufacturing for the world. Meanwhile, Taiwan is hanging onto its lead in advanced applications. Each nation is traveling a different path.

  • Taiwan is optimizing its supply chain
  • Germany is focusing on green manufacturing
  • The U.S. is re-industrializing (With help from Taiwan’s Foxconn)

Everyone is taking manageable steps because certain obstacles to ongoing transformation can only be taken apart over time. Big Data is one of the more general roadblocks, and one I find personally compelling.

Big Data vs. Business Intelligence. Know the Difference.


Big Data is not an enormous flat file.


Big Data can help optimize smart manufacturing, but people confuse Big Data with Business Intelligence. Here’s what it’s not. Big data is not an enormous flat file. “Big data is a term for data sets that are so large or complex that traditional data processing application software is inadequate to deal with them.

There are three ways to work with data. Only the third is truly Big Data.

1. What has happened? This is Business Intelligence. Descriptive Analytics looks at past data to review what happened. “Sales were down because we produced less units than last quarter.”

2. What might happen? Predictive analytics. Here, we are finding patterns between different data sets that might lead you to make a different management decision. Great for forecasting demand. Still based on the past. “Retailers cut their orders, partly because of increased shipping costs, so we produced less units, and sales went down.”

3. What will happen? Prescriptive Analytics is modeling the effect of future management decisions on future outcomes. This is where Big Data comes in. To help you figure out what you could be doing before you know what you should be doing.

One barrier is there aren’t enough people in Taiwan capable of using prescriptive analytics. Ironically, Taiwan has the manufacturing but not the data scientists. The U.S. is in the exact opposite position. One estimate I’ve heard places Taiwan’s shortage at 5,000+ data scientists. If you’re about to graduate from MIT, there’s a job for you in Taiwan.

As a practical solution, some leaders like National Tsing Hua University professor Chen-Fu Chien are advocating Industry 3.5. Maybe Taiwan can’t enable, but it can enhance. Perhaps that’s good enough for right now.

Warning: This Isn’t Covered in a MBA Program

Advanced manufacturing and semiconductors aren’t discussed in my MBA program. I got it from the College of Engineering, where the experts are. An advantage of getting a MBA in Taiwan is being around all this high tech. But it isn’t going to be conveniently given to you. Even if you’re paying for it! So, I don’t want to give the impression this is what you can expect if you come here.

Management schools, by design, don’t do cutting-edge. They do Practical. Until then, it’s not coming into a MBA program. Or it is, but in “know-this-buzzword” form. Despite the marketing, a MBA probably isn’t raising your ceiling. It eliminates the liability of what you don’t know or aren’t connecting with.

This is also why managers get Big Data confused. Statistics for MBAs covers the most practical aspects of statistics — what has happened and anticipating what might happen. Many decision-makers tend to plug the term Big Data into their understanding of statistics. This is not correct. An easy way to remember this is Big Data is beyond the powers of Microsoft Excel.

This graphic from Wikipedia explains the difference between Industry 1.0 and 4.0.  You can intuitively understand the different ways data was used for management decisions, and what some current and future needs are.

Industry 4.0 and Smart Manufacturing

More Photos from SEMICON Taiwan 2017

SEMICON Taiwan 2017 Panel Discussion Speakers

SEMICON Taiwan 2017 Panel Discussion Speakers

Handicapped Teenagers Perform for the Banquet

Handicapped teenagers perform at the banquet. Thanks again to TSMC!