JoAnne and Ronald Willens
February 19, 2020

Freedom to Explore

Caltech alumnus and telecommunications pioneer Ronald Willens and his wife, JoAnne, support early-career faculty working across traditional boundaries.

Ronald Willens (BS ’53, MS ’54, PhD ’61, DAA ’18) took a winding professional path, traveling in unexpected directions. He started his career as a Caltech faculty member before he changed course to study fundamental physics at Bell Labs. Willens then launched an entrepreneurial venture in 1986, during the heyday of the computer industry. He started a company, Livingston Enterprises, whose basic infrastructure technologies can be found in internet routers today.

Willens cites a few common themes that run through his story: the freedom to identify needs in society, to pursue fascinating research, and to build solutions by crossing disciplinary boundaries in pursuit of discovery. Those freedoms spurred Willens’s work from Caltech to Bell Labs to Livingston. Now, the 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award winner and his wife, JoAnne, want to amplify Caltech’s ability to give other researchers the same chance to explore and invent.

To accomplish that goal, the Willenses have made a $10 million commitment to Caltech to endow the Ronald and JoAnne Willens Early-Career Professorships. The endowment will create four positions for junior Caltech faculty members who specialize in translational science and technologies, with a focus on potential health breakthroughs. Support for early-career faculty is an area of increasing focus for Break Through: The Caltech Campaign. “One of the most difficult things for new professors is being able to get research support,” Willens says. “They need a little more freedom to move around and to head in new directions.”

Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum with the Willenses

“Ron and JoAnne Willens capture the essence of Caltech with their generous gift: Invest heavily in young scholars of promise, encourage them to cross disciplinary boundaries, and link their love of discovery with a passion for improving people’s lives,” says Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum, the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “We are proud to follow Ron’s fearless example through generations of Willens Scholars.”

A Road With Many Forks

After he received his PhD, Ron Willens imagined a long tenure as head of an academic laboratory. But because he had earned all three of his degrees on campus, Caltech advisers encouraged him first to branch out and spend a year outside the Institute to gain another perspective. That step led him to study solid-state physics at Bell Labs, the fabled research and development hub.

Willens came back to Caltech for a stint as an associate professor but missed the fast-paced research and development environment at Bell Labs and soon returned to begin a quarter-century of research into superconductors, semiconductors, soft x-rays, magnetism, metallurgy, optics, and lasers. In time, he ventured outside physics to explore computer languages and software development, too. “At Bell Labs, I associated with the people who wrote C and Unix, and I became useful in all the various computer languages at that point,” he says.

When the Bell System that provided the financial backing for Bell Labs broke up, software was on Willens’s mind. The computer industry was a perfect fit for his “golden rule” of entrepreneurship: there must be two people in an entrepreneurial relationship, one with a need and one with a solution.

With his son, Steven, he started a company called Livingston Enterprises to fulfill the federally mandated task of tracking potentially hazardous chemicals in order to comply with workers’ right to know about those chemicals. Later in his Livingston days, Willens’s path changed again when he realized that there was a need for remote-access servers to connect users to the internet. Livingston invented access solutions that are still used the world over. “One of our engineers wrote the standards for TCP/IP, which is the whole basic foundation of networking,” he says. “We wrote NAT [natural address translation], which allows you to use multiple devices within your house. That’s built into your router now.”

“I see products and discoveries coming out of this gift that will make people’s lives a lot better.”
- Ron Willens

Family Matters

Willens says he has fond memories of launching Livingston Enterprises with Steven, who wrote much of the software. “It was so exciting to work together with my son—the sense of pride you feel,” he says. Now, Ron and JoAnne continue to build on their family legacy by supporting translational science with a focus on health and medicine at Caltech as well as at Northwestern, where several of their children and grandchildren attended college.

“The areas where my wife and I have heavily contributed are biomedical and have a huge amount of interdisciplinary talent associated with them,” Willens says. “I can see engineers, physicists, computer scientists, chemists, biologists all working together. Caltech is making a big effort to promote interdisciplinary research. That’s where you might find many more solutions.”

He adds: “Our philanthropic investments are about improving the lives of many people by finding cures. I see products and discoveries coming out of this gift that will make people’s lives a lot better.”