The wireless world would be very different if Jacobs had followed the advice of his high school guidance counselor, who claimed there was no future in science or engineering. Jacobs enrolled in Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. But after being teased by his roommate about his easy classes, he switched to electrical engineering.
Jacobs went on to earn his doctorate at MIT, eventually teaching and partnering with a fellow faculty member to write Principles of Communication Engineering, a fundamental textbook still used today. But in 1966, when the University of California, San Diego needed help launching a new engineering school, Jacobs, his wife, and their four sons packed up and headed west.
While at UCSD, Jacobs teamed up with a couple of University of California, Los Angeles professors to start Linkabit Corp, a consulting company. He later quit teaching to work there full-time, staying until his retirement in 1985. Linkabit engineers have gone on to found more than 100 other tech companies in San Diego, turning the city into a hub for wireless innovation.
Jacobs’ retirement lasted all of three months. In July 1985, he and six Linkabit colleagues founded Qualcomm. With no products, no business plan, and a very small staff, Qualcomm focused on creating “QUALity COMMunications.” They didn’t know it yet, but one of their ideas would change everything—not just for the company, but for the world.
“Qualcomm is based on the idea that we will try to be innovative, [to] look for an idea that could make a significant difference.”
— Irwin Jacobs on the company’s vision
With Jacobs at the helm, Qualcomm pioneered the use of CDMA technology for commercial cell phone networks. At the time, competing technology TDMA was poised to become the industry standard, so CDMA had its share of skeptics. Some argued that it would be complicated and expensive to implement. Others claimed it just wouldn’t work. Despite the naysayers, Jacobs and his team persevered, and today, CDMA technology powers all 3G cellular networks, connecting billions of people around the world.
Having achieved career success, Jacobs is now focused on giving back to his community. He generously supports the arts and education, as well as local San Diego projects.
Nurturing young minds is important to Jacobs, who funds High Tech High, a growing network of schools focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. He’s also made significant donations to MIT, Cornell, and UCSD, which named its engineering school after him.
Dubbed the city’s philanthropist in chief by the San Diego Union Tribune, Jacobs and his wife Joan are generous patrons of cultural institutions including the San Diego Symphony, the La Jolla Playhouse, the San Diego Natural History Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Most rececently, they funded the city’s central library.
Thanks to his brilliance, foresight, and determination, Jacobs has enjoyed an extraordinary career. To pay it forward, he and his wife joined the Giving Pledge in 2010. Founded by Warren Buffet, this group of U.S. billionaires vows to give at least half of their wealth to charity during their lifetimes.
Jacobs has been recognized for his pioneering telecommunications work many times, with awards including the National Medal of Technology and the IEEE Medal of Honor, the organization’s highest honor. Although he retired as Chairman of the Board in 2009, his innovative spirit continues to inspire every aspect of Qualcomm. It’s reflected in each employee’s curiosity, imagination, and enthusiasm. His passion for helping the world will forever inspire us, through the next billion connections and beyond.