If it hadn't been for his wife, Britt, as SanDisk co-founder Eli Harari tells it, the restless young physicist that he was in the 1970s...

Share story

SAN JOSE, Calif. — If it hadn’t been for his wife, Britt, as SanDisk co-founder Eli Harari tells it, the restless young physicist that he was in the 1970s might have devoted his time to introducing a rival to the Popeil Pocket Fisherman.

She told him to put his energies into what he knew best. Things worked out.

Harari and SanDisk recently marked their 20th anniversary, recognized as trailblazers in the flash-memory industry. He and his company helped launch the digital-photography revolution and, through key partnerships with companies like Toshiba, created standards for a variety of industries that employ flash memory.

As Harari proudly points out, the same flash-memory cards that plug into a slot on a cellphone can also be plugged into, say, a car navigation system or a heart defibrillator. SanDisk is ranked as the world’s leading supplier of flash memory — either embedded in other companies’ products or in SanDisk’s signature line of memory cards and Sansa MP3 players.

Harari, an Israeli immigrant, may himself be regarded as a Silicon Valley prototype, combining his expertise in solid-state physics with entrepreneurial persistence. Visits to Sears, he said, had him dabbling in prototypes for new fishing rods, flea collars and screwdrivers.

Harari would make fundamental contributions to EEPROM — electrically erasable programmable read-only memory, a precursor to flash. That led to a job at Intel. Years later, frustrated by what he considered Intel’s tepid interest in flash, Harari struck out on his own. His first startup failed. But in 1988, he launched the company that would become SanDisk with former Intel colleague Sanjay Mehrotra, an Indian immigrant, and former Hughes Microelectronics colleague Jack Yuan, a Taiwanese immigrant.

In a recent interview with the San Jose Mercury News, Harari recalled how he was moved to tears while addressing SanDisk’s employees to mark the company’s anniversary. Here is part of the conversation, edited for clarity.

Q: When you think of SanDisk’s 20th anniversary, what does that milestone mean to you?

A: It’s a very emotional time for us, because the three founders are still here. One of us (Jack Yuan) is semiretired, but my co-founder Sanjay is president and COO, and I’m the CEO and chairman.

It’s very rare that you have a startup company in Silicon Valley that builds into a $4 billion company — that has changed markets it addressed, and transformed them quite remarkably — where the founders are still running the company and still having fun. And most of the growth, we believe, is still ahead of us.

So in the first 20 years, the vision was that we were going to use this new technology, called flash memory, to create mass-storage devices for mobile applications. As early as 1988 we saw that digital cameras would need digital film, and computers could become ever more mobile and light and would require storage, and cellphones would require storage, and MP3 players would require storage.

Q: So 20 years ago, you saw all that down the road. But I also read that you didn’t see the Internet.

A: We did not see the Internet. And the Internet saved us.

Because early on with digital film, in 1994, the camera manufacturers already had the technology, but the infrastructure did not exist — the ecosystem for digital prints and for making them portable. And it was really the advent of the Internet, around 1999, when people started to understand why they needed a digital camera because they didn’t need to print — they could just transmit images on the Internet to relatives, Grandma, whoever.

Q: What was business like in the startup days?

A: In 1988, when we were just three people in the company, I went to Kodak and said, look, we have this new technology called flash memory, and we can build cards for you that can replace your film. They got very excited about flash memory and they said, we’ll back you — we’ll fund your development. But one condition: You give us a three-year exclusive for digital film. We want to invest in this technology, and we don’t want anybody else to have it. At that time, Kodak had 70 percent of the world market.

And we turned them down, because in principle I don’t like exclusivity. I like market forces working — competition — and they would have a considerable head start just by working with us.

Q: How has SanDisk achieved its goals?

A: Thomas Edison said invention is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Having great ideas is only part of the puzzle. The key is to take a great idea and convert it into a major product and create a complete market for it — create customers that see the value. This is really what SanDisk has been great about.

And that has been our philosophy from day one. To create major markets, you need to create a standard, like 35 mm film, that will work in different cameras — and you need to license the competition. Just 10 years ago Kodak was still king of the hill. Just 10 years ago.

Today, one of every two flash cards sold for digital cameras in the United States is a SanDisk card, and Kodak has about 2 percent market share.

Q: And SanDisk is a global player.

A: We pride ourselves, SanDisk today, in being truly an international company. Not just in having operations in China, Japan, Israel, Europe, all over the place. But look at us here [with] 26 nationalities. We have International Day, and employees will bring their families and kids in their national costumes and we fund them to all have their own booths.

Ethnic food, ethnic music. We put booths together: Palestinian and Israeli, Pakistani and Indian, Irish and British. And it is phenomenal.

And this is part of the melting pot that makes us such a diversified company, and really makes the United States such a strong country, and such a great country.

And, really, this is what disturbs me in the way people view immigrants and H-1B visas. Some of the best talent in the world — engineering people, technical people, scientific people — come here, get a Ph.D. We invest in those people.

And then they’re forced to leave. Or they go through the best universities in China, India, Israel — and they want to come here, but they can’t come here. The whole world is trying to get these guys to come to their places. They want to come here — and we say no, because they’re going to take jobs away.

This thing about foreigners coming in here and taking jobs — well, the foreigners here, the three founders, we’ve created very high-paying jobs here in Milpitas that would not be here. They would be in Korea or China today.