Vincent Coates

Vincent Coates
Jan 19, 1925 - Dec 11, 2012
Resident of Los Altos
Making Moore's Law. One of the area's most prominent entrepreneurs and philanthropists, Vincent Coates, has passed away. Vincent J. Coates was born and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, during its "Brass Valley" heyday. His career spanned decades to today's Silicon Valley, where his vision, inventions and entrepreneurship played decisive roles in enforcing Moore's Law and advancing the awesome mobile and high-performance computing that define our digital age. Early in his career, Coates invented analytical instruments that changed the way chemists work. One of his first inventions helped enable Los Angeles' conquest of the smog that once threatened the future of that metropolis. Another early Coates invention is now revolutionizing neuroscientists' abilities to fathom the brain's intricate neural circuitry. Coates spent much of his time in later decades as a uniquely energetic, hands-on philanthropist, enabling fundamental innovations in biomedical research. He passed away peacefully at age 87 on December 11, in Cupertino, California.
Coming of age as World War II raged, Vince entered the Navy's V-12 officer training program, studying mechanical engineering at Yale, 1943-1946. At war's end, he took a job at Chance-Vought Aircraft, designing a novel hydraulics "fuse" to make the Navy's new carrier jets more flak-resistant. He moved in 1948 to the Perkin-Elmer Company. There, he created the Model 21 Infrared Spectrophotometer, an engineering masterpiece. An enormously successful and profitable product, it established IR analysis as a chemistry lab mainstay and launched Perkin-Elmer on the road to its phenomenal corporate growth. The Model 21 was also key to work by Los Angeles Air Pollution Control District chemists that led to the eventual conquest of the dreadful smog that once threatened the Los Angeles basin.
Still working with Perkin-Elmer, Coates pioneered two novel types of research instrument of monumental impact: the Gas Chromatograph / Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS - 1962) and the Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscope (FE-SEM - 1969). The GC/MS remains to this day a workhorse of chemical analysis, and the FE-SEM has had myriad semiconductor, nanotechnology, biomedical and neuroscience applications. Coates and colleague Lenny Welter later left Perkin-Elmer to start the Coates and Welter Instrument Company, concentrating on the FE-SEM. Vince Coates understood nanotechnology long before nanotechnology was cool.
Vincent Coates returned to an earlier dream of creating a sensitive infrared spectrometer microscope that would unlock the chemical secrets of cell biology and cancer. In 1975, Coates founded a new company called Nanometrics, Inc., to pursue this dream. He engineered a prototype microscope to show biologists, but found that audience unimpressed at the time. On an impromptu visit to Bell Laboratories in 1976, however, he discovered that his microscope spectrometer obliterated a major obstacle to the invention of integrated circuits - it was able to measure the exact thickness of the thin films that pattern silicon chips. Updated versions of this Coates microscope spectrometer continue to be indispensible to semiconductor process control and the scaling efficiencies that support the steep growth exponent of Moore's Law.
A unique corporate culture that Coates created at Nanometrics has kept the company at the cutting edge of the chip industry's astounding feats of transforming the "impossible" into reality. A "skunk works" computer science operation that Coates' promoted in the late 1990s, during his final year as Nanometrics CEO, is responsible for unique new chip tools that drive the company's outstanding success today and without which manufacturing the 3D chip designs that keep Moore's law alive today would be impractical. Vince is widely remembered today in the semiconductor industry for his vision, his leadership acumen and his personal integrity.
Coates used his share of the wealth resulting from the success of Nanometrics to create a philanthropic family foundation. Vincent Coates' philanthropic style was unique, bypassing the usual trappings of a foundation staff with a very direct, hands-on approach. He read primary research papers in scientific journals and made his own calls on promising research areas, focusing mainly on neuroscience research. He found his way into many a bemused professor's office, chatted for a while, and, if he liked what he heard, simply asked how he could help. Today, there are Coates endowed professorships at Harvard, Yale, UCLA and the Salk Institute, and numerous other laboratories at Stanford, UC Berkeley and other institutions have benefitted from Coates Family Foundation financial support.
Vincent Coates will be missed by his wife of 33 years, Stella, and three generations of offspring, including his sons Norman and Trevor and their wives Robin and Sarah, his daughter Darryl, and her husband Gerry, four grandchildren Melonie, Lauren, Carl and Tom, and two great grandchildren, Hunter and Ellery. Vince's family and colleagues and his sailing, skiing and golf partners will always remember his warm sense of humor and his joy in entertaining with his excellent piano playing. A memorial service will be held for family only. Memorial contributions may be made to Pathways Hospice, 585 Mary Avenue, Sunnyvale 94085 or to The (www.alz.org).

Published in San Jose Mercury News/San Mateo County Times on Dec. 19, 2012