Meet One of Intel's Most Prolific Inventors

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Qinghua Li, one of Intel's most prolific inventors, says some of his best ideas have come from informal "apple breaks" around the water fountain with a colleague.

According to a 2013 study by the Brookings Institution, Intel ranked No. 3 in U.S. patents granted for the previous five years, behind only Microsoft and IBM and ahead of Apple, GE, Cisco and HP. Li is certainly not the only Intel inventor driving that, but he's been an important contributor especially on wireless front.

Over the past 10 years, Li has contributed to more than 270 Intel patents and patent applications, including several related to essential Wi-Fi and 4G standards. He is one of Intel's top experts in multiple antenna communication techniques, which are often referred to as "MIMO" or "multiple input multiple output" communication processing, and he has contributed to almost every wireless standard, including UWB, WiGi, WiMAX, LTE and WiDi.

What childhood experience led Li to become an inventor?

It was a lathe -- an extremely loud woodworking lathe -- that his father used to make chairs and tables in the evenings at their home in Guangzhou, China. He recalls that the "low frequency rumbling" of the tool so irritated him that, at age 8, he vowed when he grew up he would work with quieter things.

And so he did. Li was recently honored as Intel's first-ever "Inventor of the Year." CEO Brian Krzanich was there to salute Li and other leading patent holders and filers at an event celebrating the people who may be the key to Intel's future. Some people are justifiably proud of a patent or perhaps even several they hold. Li has so many patents, or patents-in-process, he needs an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of them all -- a sum of 270 at last count.

Li smiles and says the Intel patent lawyers might have a more current figure.

Li's very first patent, which he landed about two years after earning his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Texas A&M University and joining Intel in 2001, allowed multiple wireless devices to talk with a single wireless base station.

Since then, he has been busy -- with the bulk of his inventions related to wireless communications including UWB, Wi-Fi, WiGi, WiMAX, LTE and WiDi.

Li says many of his inventions and patents relate to "beamforming, interference mitigation, multi-access and ultrasound ranging." As Intel pushes forward on its mobile strategy, a broad patent portfolio is critical. Li spent the bulk of his Intel career working in the Intel Labs, but not surprisingly he now works in the Mobile and Communications Group.

So what's his secret? Li says he is lucky that his Intel managers have "given me the freedom" to work on solving problems that most intrigued him.

But there have also been his "apple breaks." Every day for about half a dozen years, Li and a fellow Intel inventor would meet at about 5 p.m. by the water fountain at his office. There, they'd each peel an apple and eat and talk.

For half an hour or so, they'd trade ideas, swap possible solutions to knotty problems, and look for the next problem to tackle. Li's "apple breaks" never appeared on Outlook, they were never formally scheduled. But today, he estimates that fully half of his 270 patents had their genesis in those end-of-day informal conversations with his friend.

What about his father? When he wasn't raising a racket at home making chairs with that lathe, he worked as a professor of mechanical engineering, as did his mother. Are his parents at all disappointed their son strayed into the (much quieter) world of electrical engineering? Li laughs. Not at all. "They are very proud," he says.

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Qinghua Li

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