Description: Micron is the biggest tech company you may not know. It dominates the business of memory, and is the second largest chipmaker in the U.S. after Intel. Sanjay Mehrotra explains how memory is changing, and why it is indispensable to successful AI and all the other big moves in modern technologized society.

The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.


Speaker: Sanjay Mehrotra, Micron Technology

Interviewer: David Kirkpatrick, Techonomy

(Transcription by RA Fisher Ink)

Kirkpatrick: Micron is a company that has $30 billion in annual revenues, market cap of $55 billion, second largest semiconductor company in the United States after Intel. It is the memory company. And that is one of the things we’re going to be talking about, what does it mean to be a memory company today? Sanjay was one of the cofounders of SanDisk, which in the context of this story or this whole conference and discussion about immigration and everything we might get to because it’s a great story. But he’s been leading Micron for a while now and it’s doing wonderfully.

So what do you think people least understand about the memory business, Sanjay?

Mehrotra: I think people think of the past and they look at memory as a commodity and people don’t realize that today, in all the applications, the memory is really at the very heart of all of the technology trends of today. It used to be that memory would be just about PCs and providing the function of memory in PC, today it’s not just about PC, I mean, in your mobile phone, memory plays a central role in terms of the capability, the features, things like artificial intelligence-driven facial recognition features in your phone require memory. Look at data centers, they require more memory and storage. Vehicles today need more memory and storage. So the applications have really become much more diversified and memory is key to delivering the experience across multiple technology industries. And that’s what people many times today don’t fully appreciate that how central memory and storage have truly become. You look at data centers today, the conference is talking a lot about AI and you look at AI machine learning workloads, they require more memory and storage. Six times more data requirement and two times more flash storage required in order to make your cloud operations, cloud services be seamless. But clearly those are relying on AI machine learning experience.

So markets are much more diversified, memory is key, memory is central. And the exciting part is that this is just the very beginning. We are in the very early stages of AI-driven technology revolution and data, it’s all about data today and that data resides in the memory and the sort of solutions that Micron makes.

Kirkpatrick: And yours is a company that’s always had a very high orientation toward cutting edge IT, you have how many patents?

Mehrotra: So Micron is 40 years old, we actually just last month celebrated our fortieth. Over the 40-year history of the company, Micron has contributed 40,000 patents. That’s a mind-boggling number.

Kirkpatrick: It’s a mind-boggling number.

Mehrotra: Just think about it, that’s 1,000 patents a year, that’s like 3 patents a day.

Kirkpatrick: But it’s also how you’ve lasted 40 years and are thriving now at a time when memory has more importance than ever. And we did hear, I thought we had quite an exciting conversation about AI and its opportunities and some of the challenges, but really there is—if memory doesn’t advance and if the nature of semiconductor technology doesn’t advance which is more broadly the area you’re in, there’s even an evolution where processing and memory are coming closer together. If semiconductor technology doesn’t advance, we’re not going to get the promise of AI we heard about, would you agree?

Mehrotra: Absolutely. As I said, memory and storage is very much at the heart of AI applications, the AI evolution, and absolutely memory and storage has to continue to advance. Today, memory and storage give you solutions that give you the performance that is needed for all the AI compute that has to be working on millions of data in a very fast fashion. So you need fast memory, you need fast storage, and you need lots of it. So those advances in memory and storage which Micron is extremely focused on, continue to drive technology toward bringing memory and storage, not just more capacity, not just high performance, but understanding the applications of all our customers and designing in features that ultimately really make their applications, their workloads, work even faster. And that’s also something that has really changed in terms of how memory is viewed by the customer ecosystem. Customers are wanting to work with us very early on in terms of understanding our roadmap and designing in our technologies and solutions within their system architectures so that they can truly get the full bang for the buck from the memory solutions.

Kirkpatrick: Well, partly because there are some very new types of memory solutions that you’re making that just never existed before that are not the same kind of sort of simple chips that dominated the industry for most of its history.

Mehrotra: Yes, so the memory solutions we make are DRAM flash, as well as 3D XPoint which is an emerging memory. When you look at DRAM flash, 3D XPoint, no other company in the world has all of these technologies under the umbrella of one company. So we are very uniquely positioned. Of course, 3D XPoint is an emerging technology of the future. This is 10x more density that DRAM, 1,000x faster than NAND, so a very interesting approach to these full applications there. And DRAM is where you do a lot of the processing of the data fast-fetch of information and it’s absolutely critical, again, in data-centric applications that are really operating on a lot of data, operating on a lot of data fast, a lot of that information fast in order to draw the insights that AI needs and then turning really those insights into actionable applications. So memory and storage are absolutely critical. The storage site is flash, in your phone, I mean, look at phones today sell by how much flash you have in them. So memory has really become that valuable, that it’s not just something that’s hidden behind an application and you don’t see it, today memory really commands the premium into the value in terms of the applications.

Kirkpatrick: So as the CEO of this very cutting edge technology company that is sort of an unknown gem of the American technology ecosystem, partly because much of the company has been in Boise, Idaho all these years because memory was seen as sort of unsexy, it’s getting a lot sexier, but at the biggest level, what are your priorities as the CEO? What are the things that you’re most concerned about?

Mehrotra: So our priorities are the technology roadmap that we have is exciting, we want to make sure we absolutely execute that roadmap. The focus of that roadmap is to continue to advance technology so that we can continue to lower the cost on a per gigabyte basis going forward so that you can, again, really unleash many more applications using the kind of solutions we make. So technology, cross-competitiveness, and absolutely making our solutions become more valuable to all our customers so that they, in their applications, are driving greater value as well. And working very closely with the customers, these are really the top priorities.

So I’ll give you an example, we work with data center customers and data center customers are absolutely the key drivers in terms of the large growth for memory and storage solutions. We work with them to understand their workload requirements of the future, work as needed from the memory, and if you look at in a data center today, the AI-based servers, the AI training servers, are a very, very small part of the total data center ecosystems. By 2025, half of those servers will be having AI training-driven applications in them and that means those require more memory, they require more storage. As I said before, they require six times more data and they require two times more NAND flash storage and they require more speed and specific features. So my priority as CEO is to work with customers like these that are defining, that are really shaping the world of tomorrow and truly enriching our lives. Work with them to understand their technology requirements, make sure our roadmaps are well-aligned, and, of course, in the process continue to deliver strong value to all our stakeholders including our shareholders.

Kirkpatrick: Well, given your understanding of where things are going because you’re so deeply embedded in this cutting edge technology, where would you say society, the economy, our lives will be most transformed by this transition to AI that memory is helping to facilitate?

Mehrotra: Our lives will be transformed everywhere with this AI revolution. I mean, whether it is us as consumers, look at your mobile phone device, as I mentioned earlier, facial recognition applications, that’s an example of AI. Smart speakers in your home, CD Alexa, natural language processing, absolutely relying on AI. The next frontier is computer vision, autonomous vehicles, just think about autonomous vehicles, I like to call them—they will be like data centers on wheels, they will need so much memory because all those sensors that are on those autonomous vehicles, all those sensors will be processing, will lead to processed data real time on the vehicle itself, also through the cloud. And think of what autonomous vehicles of the future truly mean even for disabled or the elderly in terms of providing them mobility to a truly enriching life and our memory and our storage will be very much at the heart of those as well.

So in our own factories today, we are using AI to drive greater productivity of the factories in terms of running all the equipment, making sure that the maintainers of those equipment and any equipment that’s getting a little bit out of square, we manage it efficiently. So I think you have applications everywhere. And of course, health care is one huge one.

Kirkpatrick: I was going to ask you about health care. Yes, talk a little bit about what you think is going to happen in health care.

Mehrotra: That’s actually a very exciting application, a passion of mine personally, I’m involved with Stanford Hospital as well as with the Stanford Medical School. And I just want to share with you and it’s a little awkward to talk about it but just medicine is now going toward precision medicine and precision health. And it’s mind-boggling what’s going in terms of the research capabilities. So imagine smart toilets in the future that will be analyzing human waste, real time, every day, you don’t need to be going to visit physicians every six months. If any signs of any trouble, any disease starts showing up, you will be able to catch it much earlier because of a urine analysis, stool analysis, these are, of course, ultimately all genome analysis, five terabytes of data that is required to be stored for human genome. And applications that are also studying in radiology and pathology, 3D images that are being analyzed bit by bit in order to detect diseases and predict diseases and identify treatment plans. For example, at Stanford, over 100,000 images, X-ray images analyzed to determine the algorithms for detecting pneumonia. And it can detect in many cases, these diseases can be detected at better accuracy than the physicians.

So I think we are barely scratching the surface there. I think the possibilities there are limitless and all of these applications need a lot of data and that data has to be processed. Of course, it needs a lot of compute, it needs a lot of data, all of these applications have growing requirements for the kind of technology and solutions that we make at Micron.

Kirkpatrick: So sometimes it’s challenging to be an American company. I was just on Bloomberg, the technology show shooting here right now and I know you’re going to be on shortly and I know one of the things they’re going to ask you about is you’ve gotten in the middle of a dispute with China because you’re getting ripped off pretty badly and you were arguing that—I think you filed a suit against the people and now the government is basically working on your behalf and I think they’ve recently blocked some company from buying any more American stuff. How does that play into the landscape you’re living in? I mean, is this a big part of your concerns? Is this a big threat? Is this just an inconvenience? How do you think of that?

Mehrotra: So as we discussed earlier, Micron over 40 years has invested billions of dollars in research and development activities and has contributed nearly 40,000 patents to our industry. So of course, what our business, our technology, our trade secrets, our proprietary information is extremely valuable and Micron absolutely relies on that in terms of driving its future growth proportionalities, so we are very much for protecting that intellectual information. And the particular case that you are talking about, we did have an incident in China related to our Chinese company where some of our intellectual property is misappropriated. Regardless of where in the world, Micron will absolutely always defend its intellectual property. And I think it’s very important that in all regions of the world we absolutely see fair and a level playing field and respect for intellectual property, a company that is as individual as Micron, it is extremely important for us to drive our business with that principle of protecting our intellectual property.

Kirkpatrick: But that incident also underscores the reality of what a national treasure your company is because China does not have a memory company, really, of any scale. And so they would desperately like to have their own Micron so there’s going to be some tensions but it seems like you’re on good track there.

Mehrotra: I just want to mention, you said national treasure, I absolutely view Micron as a national treasure as well. And we are in effort as well that at one point that of course there have been very many companies in the past that used to be in our industry. So we are extremely used to fierce competition in our industry. We demand extremely focused on driving our technology and product roadmap and engaging with the customers to drive the growth. So it’s not about worrying about competition, we just want to make sure that competition plays by fair rules.

Kirkpatrick: Yes. After Samsung, you’re the largest in the world in this so clearly you’ve done well. Your story is amazing and I just wanted to quickly get to it because you started SanDisk, you were raised in India, your SanDisk co-founders, one was from Israel and one was from Taiwan, what a great American immigration story and the company did spectacularly over many years. But I understand that when you first tried to come into the United States you were denied entry. Just talk a little bit about that.

Mehrotra: So I was 18 years old, I had gotten admission to US universities, it was always my dad’s dream to send me to the US for my undergrad education. I got those admissions, plenty of excitement, we go to the US embassy to get a visa to come to the student—a visa to come to the US and it gets denied. We go to the US embassy three times and at three different occasions over a period of just a few weeks and each time I was going in there with a different university admission that I was receiving.

Kirkpatrick: You were getting admitted to US universities.

Mehrotra: I was getting admitted to multiple universities and I would go to the US consulate with a different university admission each time but each time they would turn us down. So the third time and we got turned down, my dad every time had to come with me and he just got furious and said why am I being turned down? And he asked to speak to the consulate and they said, “You know, you’re an average person off the street, the consulate doesn’t talk to anybody.” So my dad, you know, he had seen what the picture of the consulate is because it was posted in the lobby of the US embassy and he had also learned that the consulate is on a lunchbreak, he said, “Let’s wait, maybe we’ll be lucky and he’ll walk through these doors, the lobby doors, and we’ll be able to catch him.” And sure enough, he did walk through the doors and my dad did tag along with him as he was walking to the office. Somehow, he was not interested in talking to us but he did allow us into the room and at that moment, I was quiet, my dad was doing all of the talking, for 20 minutes he pretty much blasted the consulate there that how can it be that he is denying me admission to UC Berkeley, the possibility to study at a preeminent university and denying me of all the possibility of the future and how can he do that? At that moment, my dad was not just my father, I mean, he was absolutely a great advocate for me, he was my trial lawyer, he was like my manager. And the consulate just listened for 20 minutes and my dad was extremely passionate, extremely angry, and making the case of why I should be allowed to go to the US to study, 20 minutes later the consulate asked for my passport, goes inside, and stamps the visa and gives it back to us.


Kirkpatrick: Okay. So—

Mehrotra: And I have to say, in that moment, I mean, I had watched the performance of my lifetime there in terms of what my dad did for me. I was so taken aback, gave him a big hug, didn’t know what to say but I learned at that moment that if you seek success, start with tenacity. He did not give up. And that’s Micron for you too, I mean, Micron over four decades, an extremely tenacious company and today, absolutely a national treasure.

Kirkpatrick: Of course, you didn’t start Micron, you did start SanDisk. At SanDisk’s peak, how many employees did it employee in the United States?

Mehrotra: SanDisk worldwide employed at its peak around 10,000 employees. And in the United States about 3,000.

Kirkpatrick: Okay, 3,000 jobs, thanks to your father. That’s pretty good. So let’s just try to—we have time for maybe one question if anybody has something that they’d like to ask Sanjay. We don’t have tons of time. Is there somebody? Here we go. Please identify yourself.

Greene: Hi, Will Greene, I’m a Singapore writer and consultant. Just as an immigrant who has also dealt with some issues with China, I’m curious what you think about the current administration’s policies on trade and technology. And I’m not sure if you were there yesterday for the deputy trade guy but if you have any reflections on what he said I’d love to hear them.

Mehrotra: I wasn’t here yesterday so I’m not totally clear on what was said yesterday. But I’ll tell you that in terms of our industry and the technology industry we absolutely do rely on top talent, actually that’s one of the keys to strategic pillars at Micron. And we want to develop the top talent here in the US but we also want to be able to access the top talent anywhere other than the US. Our industry absolutely does rely on immigration and I think that those making it easy to capture talent, whatever it may be in the world, to drive the growth agenda of our companies, our industries here in the US is extremely important to the industry as well as to Micron and is important to me, as well. So in terms of immigration, I think that’s important to really support, student visas as well as ability for immigrants to be successful here. In terms of administration’s approach on protecting intellectual property and IP theft, clearly, we are an example. We have been affected by it. We do appreciate those policies. I think that is an important aspect that has to be, as I said, taken care of in terms of any country in the world. I think it’s very important that there is a fair level playing field. And fair legal processes to manage any of the disputes over IP issues or other business issues that may arise in any country or between countries.

Kirkpatrick: Sanjay, thanks so much for being here. Thanks to your dad. And thank you again. So really enjoyed talking to you.

Mehrotra: Thank you.

Kirkpatrick: Congrats on all the success at Micron.