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GaN, Death, And Distrust

Feb. 15, 2013
After working abroad on GaN developments, a 31-year-old engineer began to worry that his work could compromise US national security. He was later found dead, having supposedly committed suicide.

In the microwave industry, we talk about history—proudly. We remember how this industry has changed the course of the world, as it did through radar during World War II. We share our enthusiasm over how it is changing lives today—for example, through medical applications. We pride ourselves on the innovative spirit, genius, and dedicated work ethic of so many engineers, who continue to drive the industry forward with new advances like gallium nitride (GaN). We discuss the risks and benefits of being part of a “global” market and doing business in other countries, like China. Upon reading the story of a recently deceased, young engineer under mysterious circumstances, however, I wonder if we are overlooking the dangers of the international market—in addition to “turning a blind eye” to the applications for some of our technology.

In an article from The Financial Times titled “Death in Singapore,” Raymond Bonner and Christine Spolar tell the story of Shane Todd’s death. The 31-year-old Todd—with a doctorate from the University of California, Santa Barbara, for work on transmission lines—had toiled for 18 months at Singapore’s Institute of Microelectronics (IME), a research institute of the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC), Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR). Amidst preparations to return to the US, where he had gotten a new job at Nuvotronics, he allegedly committed suicide by hanging. Although Todd had suffered from a couple of bouts of anxiety during his lifetime (i.e., insomnia), he was never prone to suicide. His family had been concerned about him because he repeatedly told them that he was concerned about the work he was doing at IME in GaN research, thinking that it could jeopardize US national security.

Upon arriving at his apartment in Singapore, Todd’s parents immediately noticed that the scene in the bathroom did not match what they had been told in terms of how their son had arranged his death. And the apartment seemed frozen in time, as Shane—who at the time of his death had one week left in Singapore—had clearly been in the middle of doing laundry and packing. Because he had planned to sell his furniture, price labels were out—some with dollar amounts written on them.

The Singapore police had deemed the death a suicide and confiscated his laptops and mobile phone. Upon leaving, however, Todd’s mother noticed something that she thought was a speaker. Thinking one of their other sons might use it, the Todds packed it. When they got home, however, they discovered the speaker was actually an external hard drive that contained copies of their son’s computer files. The files included Todd’s work at IME and a timetable and plan for a project between IME and Huawei Technologies to “co-develop” a GaN amplifier by the end of 2014.

Among the material listed, which the Todds had extracted by a computer analyst, were project details like objectives, scope, and a timetable. Todd was given the job of finding equipment that was pivotal to GaN research and learning how to use it. In fact, he was later kept on at IME in order to train people on some of this equipment.

Unfortunately, no one may ever know what happened to Shane Todd. People have committed suicide with little or no warning. Yet some aspects of this story point to foul play. For instance, Todd—who communicated with his family via Skype weekly—told them to call the American Embassy if they didn’t hear from him in a week. In addition, there were issues with his physical state. Todd’s knuckles were bruised and he had a bump on his head. Judging by pictures that the Todds sent, a pathologist in the US said that the bruising around his neck also was inconsistent with hanging by suicide and instead pointed to a rapid death. The computer analyst also found something worrisome: Three days after Todd’s death, someone looked at several of Todd’s IME folders. One of the files was a PowerPoint presentation of the “Layer structure and summary of Veeco grown HEMT wafer.”

The Singapore police did not take photos of Todd’s apartment or perform any fingerprinting. In addition, a US ambassador told the Todds that the FBI in Singapore had pushed to investigate, offering forensics assistance. But this help was refused by Singapore police. The Todds continue to do what they can to push this story forward, hoping to raise awareness of possible dangers in today’s international business market—particularly in engineering, where most of the game-changing R&D is now done offshore. Shane Todd went to work at IME because he hoped to do very exciting work in a specialized area in which he excelled. He never made it home. And on the IME website, the ad for his replacement continues to run.

For more information on this story, please go to and read the excellent article that was written by Raymond Bonner and Christine Spolar. In addition, a petition directing the Department of Justice to investigate Shane Todd's death is being circulated.

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