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Alumnus Min Kao Draws on Education to Navigate GPS Company

garmin_founders.jpg When Min Kao applied for a teaching assistantship to continue his graduate studies in engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, he could never have imagined that his name would one day grace a department and a building on the university's engineering campus.

Dr. Min H. Kao, a native of Taiwan, received his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the National Taiwan University in Taipei. After graduation, he decided to apply to schools in the United States for his postgraduate studies. He was offered a teaching assistantship at the University of Tennessee, which helped to pay for his tuition and expenses. Coincidentally, his brother was also a student at Vanderbilt University, so the proximity of Knoxville to Nashville made UTK an appropriate choice.

During his years as a graduate student, Kao worked on research projects under the guidance of now-retired ECE professors Dr. James Hung and Dr. Robert Bodenheimer.

“I found the University of Tennessee's engineering program to be very practical, and a logical next step to the theory I studied at National Taiwan University,” Kao said. “Looking back, I can see how well this training has served me throughout my career. Of course, some of the things I enjoyed most about my days at UT were the various research projects that I undertook under the supervision of Dr. Hung and Dr. Bodenheimer.” Hung remembers Kao as a hard-working and bright student.

“I met Min Kao in the fall of 1973 when he arrived at UT, Knoxville, where he had been awarded a graduate teaching assistantship,” Hung commented. “I was his major advisor for his master's and his doctoral programs. I was sure that he would be very successful in his profession, since he came to us from the best university in Taiwan.”

After receiving his master's and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from UT in 1975 and 1977, respectively, Kao accepted a position at Teledyne, where he was involved in the development of various navigation systems. He was employed for stints at Magnavox and King Radio (which later was sold to AlliedSignal, and eventually to Honeywell), but eventually Kao decided to join forces with a former King Radio colleague, Gary Burrell, to start their own company. Both had extensive experience in navigation systems; Kao had led the Global Positioning Systems (GPS) team that developed the first GPS receiver certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“My partner Gary Burrell and I were a couple of engineers who had great enthusiasm for the future of GPS technology, but we lacked any experience in running a company,” Kao added.

The company, initially named ProNav and later re-named Garmin – a play on the first names of the founders – introduced its flagship GPS product for the domestic marine market, and shortly thereafter expanded to international marine and aviation applications. Burrell and Kao established their first office in Lenexa, Kansas, in 1989, and started to build up their US campus at the current Kansas City suburb location in 1996.

Currently a world leader in aviation, marine, recreational, fitness and automotive GPS markets, Garmin has reported significant growth over the past 15 years. The company employs nearly 3,000 employees worldwide and has facilities in Kansas, Oregon, Arizona, Taiwan and England. Garmin has shipped more than 10 million GPS navigation, communication and information devices.

“We operate our business contrary to what you see from most companies today, where the focus is on outsourcing and down sizing,” Kao said. “Instead, we focus on insourcing and creating jobs. We implement a vertical integration concept for which we design, develop and market every product under the Garmin name.”

Kao had stayed in touch with Hung after graduating, and it was Hung whom Kao first contacted with the idea of providing a gift of lasting value to a university–potentially, his alma mater, the University of Tennessee.

“I was very happy when I realized that he had the idea to help the university,” Hung said.

Kao's generous gift of $17.5 million to the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering–$12.5 million that is designated for a new building and $5 million in matching funds to generate an endowment of $10 million – is the largest private gift in UT, Knoxville's history. Both the new building and the ECE department will be named after Kao in honor of his generosity.

Kao envisions the new facility and funding as paving the way for an expanded ECE program that still provides instruction in the core engineering principles.

“I would encourage the university to focus on the fundamental science and engineering studies,” Kao commented. “A solid foundation in the practical applications of electrical and computer education is imperative. Secondly, I would emphasize creative and innovative product design. I would like for students to experience the thrill of embedded systems design and discovery and realize the potential they have to create products that can change lives.”

Hung hopes his former student's gift will be a catalyst for achievement for both the department and the college. “I am sure, with the new building and additional funding, that the ECE Department is in a better position to fulfill its mission of teaching, research and public service. I know Min Kao wants to see the department also produce graduates who are industry savvy,” Hung commented.

Prior to the announcement of the gift, Kao modestly stayed in the background, remaining anonymous while details were being worked out and only revealing his name after the arrangements were final, preferring to keep the focus on the building and fund-raising initiatives. Kao will continue to lead Garmin, where he has plans for future growth.

“Our company has enjoyed significant growth for more than 15 years, and we still see incredible opportunities ahead. I intend to lead, learn and enjoy the next phase of Garmin's life. I feel our best efforts are still to come,” Kao added.

He also hopes to make time for travel and family activities with his wife, Fan, and their two adult children.

Plans are also in the works for Kao to attend the building's dedication ceremony. “Knoxville offers significant fond memories, since it was my first U.S. city experience. I found the community very friendly and its people most helpful. A recent visit reminded me that those qualities haven't changed,” Kao said. “I will certainly be on hand for the excitement of the facility's dedication.”