This fall, three graduate students will enter Caltech as Kortschak Scholars in Computing and Mathematical Sciences. They are the first students in the Kortschak Scholars program, a newly established endowment for incoming PhD students in computer science at Caltech. The objective of the program is to launch a new era of scholarship, inquiry, and innovation in the artificially intelligent future. Caltech trustee and venture capitalist Walter Kortschak (MS ’82), with his wife, Marcia, created the program through a $5 million gift for endowed graduate fellowships, a top priority in Break Through: The Caltech Campaign.
“Our objective is to capture lightning in a bottle,” says Walter Kortschak. “We want to supercharge the next generation of PhD students with a unique freedom of inquiry, Caltech’s interdisciplinary resources, and valuable connections so they can expand the artificially intelligent future with big, world-changing ideas. Ultimately, we see our scholars’ and Caltech’s role as fostering groundbreaking advances in computing and mathematical sciences that can have a huge impact on society. This is our primary goal for the Kortschak Scholars program.”
We spoke with Walter Kortschak about the new program.
What is the basic idea?
The Kortschak Scholars program allows PhD students to spend their first two years at Caltech exploring emerging computing disciplines. Today, we already see the impact that AI, including deep learning and robotics, is having on the world—but we expect that we’ll be surprised by what comes next. The program will allow our scholars to be unconstrained in their pursuit of new areas of research in computer science, possibly in a highly interdisciplinary and unexplored area.
Ultimately, there will be 10 Kortschak Scholars at any given time engaged in groundbreaking and transformative computer science research. We established the program in conjunction with the Gordon and Betty Moore Graduate Fellowship Match.
Beyond financial support, how will Kortschak Scholars get a head start?
Marcia and I firmly believe that success in life comes from the enduring relationships we build both personally and professionally. As a result, an important element of our program is to provide each of our Kortschak Scholar cohorts with unmatched opportunities to meet with thought leaders in Silicon Valley and around the country every year, to start building the connective tissue and contacts so critical early in a scholar’s career.
We also plan to host an annual TED-like conference of scholars on Kauai to build a community of Kortschak Scholars to share ideas, collaborate on research, and support one another professionally.
Our objective is to build a cohort of scholars who can look back years from now and say, “Many of the most meaningful relationships I established in graduate school were with the community of Kortschak Scholars I associated with.”
Marcia and you are known for creating programs that emphasize creativity and thinking differently.
We prefer to think outside of the box and fund individual-centric programs that bring out the unique talents and innate creativity in each student. Accomplishing these objectives often requires partnering with forward-thinking faculty members who are interested in giving their students an opportunity to approach academics from a slightly different perspective. Time will tell, but we hope these types of programs will not just benefit our scholars, but also lead to developments to be shared with a much larger community of educators and students.
How did your 30-plus years in venture capital inform this new program?
I’ve been fortunate to “experience the future” a few times over my 30-plus years in venture capital, backing outstanding entrepreneurs and their companies in software and computer science. One of my first early-stage investments was the cybersecurity company McAfee back in 1991, which was the first company to pioneer the internet business model and apply it to anti-virus software. Fast forward to today, and I’m the executive chairman of SignalFire, a data-driven venture capital firm that is both creating the artificially intelligent future and investing in it using a unique talent-focused platform and our own exceptional AI team. We see hundreds of areas where AI is changing the world, all enabled by the open resources that universities and students create.
So it was from that vantage point, and as a Caltech trustee, that I saw the huge gap in how computer science research was being funded in the leading graduate schools in the United States. Innovations happen at warp speed, but the gains mostly accrue to technology giants like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Indeed, some of the best research in computer science happens inside corporate labs, and is never shared with the public—or at least, not until many years later. We want to enable the next generation of entrepreneurs, innovators, and scholars that will build the artificially intelligent future for everyone.
Regretfully, as government’s appetite for funding world-changing technologies has fallen, the traditional funding model—where researchers build incrementally upon grants—has become woefully inadequate. While corporations have sponsored basic AI research at universities through their own grants, much of the funding comes with restrictions and guardrails on topics, and most is focused on problems that a major company thinks could drive the next dollar of profit.
Instead, we need to think about the interests of these incoming PhD students. Their curiosity and boundless enthusiasm will generate “moonshot ideas.” It’s time to create a crucible to hatch these transformational opportunities and I can’t think of a better place to do that than Caltech.
Why invest in computer science at Caltech?
Many of the great breakthroughs in science and engineering have come from applying ideas from one discipline to another. I believe very few institutions have such a rich history as Caltech in fostering this interdisciplinary approach so vital in creating breakthrough inventions. Caltech prides itself on not siloing its faculty members or graduate students.
Interest among Caltech students in computer science has skyrocketed. Areas such as machine learning, deep learning, and quantum cryptography, and their applications—including autonomous driving cars, robotics, the automated workplace, and cybersecurity—are some of the most exciting technologies being worked on today.
In the big picture, why do you contribute to Caltech?
Caltech is a national treasure with a long history of innovations, but without the support of so many amazing alumni and friends, we risk losing our ability to attract the very best researchers and create the next wave of innovation. Moreover, Caltech has had a significant impact on my life and I feel indebted and a sense of responsibility to give back in some way to the Institute.
If our Kortschak Scholars program can help Caltech attract and support the very best students and faculty in computer science, we are confident these scholars will do great things and that will be very satisfying to both Marcia and me.
One of the most enjoyable experiences is sitting down with prospective scholars. Their boundless optimism and off-the-charts creative talents are inspiring. The opportunity to engage with super-smart, super-creative, and super-motivated students really excites us.