Newton was also instrumental in the establishment of the Berkeley Center for Synthetic Biology, which was launched in 2006 with a $16 million grant from the National Science Foundation. He understood the emerging field of synthetic biology as the application of engineering principles to the life sciences.
Newton’s interest in engineering was sparked by long hours spent in his father’s garage, tinkering with radios and TVs. His formal engineering education began at the University of Melbourne, where he received a B. Eng. and M. Eng. Sci. in 1973 and 1975, respectively. A fortuitous meeting in Melbourne with Donald Pederson, a professor at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, changed his life.
Pederson recognized Newton’s skill and ingenuity and invited him to join a team in Berkeley working on a computer program to simulate the operation of integrated circuits. Newton’s work on this project kick-started his lifelong interest in EDA. Pederson and Newton worked together to improve SPICE (simulated program with integrated circuit emphasis), a simulation program that enables engineers to analyze and design complex electronic circuitry quickly and accurately. SPICE was then presented to peers for review and improvement, becoming the prototypical example of open-source software. Virtually every electronic chip developed in the world today uses SPICE or one of its derivatives.
After earning his Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1978, Newton spent six months traveling and living in a rural village in India before he began looking for a faculty position. Paul Gray, former executive chancellor and provost of UC Berkeley (and Newton’s predecessor as dean of the College of Engineering), was one of the faculty members who decided to hire Newton. As Gray recalls: “We did something we never did. We never hired our own graduate students. We just never did that. It was policy. But in Rich’s case, we had to. We knew we could not let such a brilliant individual go to work for an institution we were competing with. He was too good to let go.”
Newton went on to become a brilliant teacher and researcher. He helped to found a number of design technology companies,