Wei Xu was a student at Beijing Normal University in the early 1980s when he began studying fuzzy logic. It was a natural move for a math student in a country where more than a dozen institutes and 10,000 researchers were working on the technology. But what came next can only be described as extraordinary: By a set of curious chances, Wei Xu (pronounced Way Shoe) has become a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, complete with a $4 million company called Aptronix Inc. and a couple of sports cars in his garage.
After graduating from Beijing Normal in 1984, Xu designed fuzzy-logic controls for oil rigs and a plastic-film manufacturer, plus an aircraft-engine diagnostic system for the Chinese air force. He says, however, that "it's hard to start a private company in China, and there's no competitive pressure in a communist country to get products to market faster." So he went to Tokyo, started a business, and sold fuzzy-logic designs to the likes of Sony Corp. and Omron Tateisi Electronics Co.
He might be there still if it weren't for the 1989 crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Several of Xu's Chinese engineers rushed to renew their visas to stay in Japan. The Japanese refused. So Xu moved his company to San Jose, Calif.
He has kept most of his Japanese customers. But Xu, now 30, sees more opportunity in the U.S. In Japan, he says, fuzzy's biggest market is for consumer products, where the need to add features will be quickly exhausted. In America, "as the computer industry becomes more graphics-intensive--with multimedia, data compression, and real-time animation--fuzzy logic will become a huge industry," says Xu. That's because fuzzy can greatly simplify the complex computations needed for graphics.
SHY PEOPLE. In the meantime, Aptronics has teamed up with Motorola Inc. Xu's company will supply software tools that Motorola customers can use to program the chipmaker's microcontrollers. These chips now help run everything from coffee makers to car engines.
Xu has two U.S. competitors: Togai InfraLogic Inc. in Irvine, Calif., which makes fuzzy chips and software, and Allen-Bradley Co., which sells a fuzzy software-development package created by its parent, Rockwell International Corp. But the big challenge, he says, is getting U.S. engineers to lose their shyness of fuzzy logic: "The name confuses people," he adds. "I would have called it 'continuous logic.' "