Carnegie Mellon University
September 29, 2023

Carnegie Mellon Remembers Trustee Bruce McWilliams

By Brian Thornton

Peter Kerwin
  • University Communications & Marketing
  • 412-268-1151
Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
  • 412-268-9982

The Carnegie Mellon University community is mourning Trustee and triple-alumnus Bruce Marshall McWilliams, who passed away after a short illness last weekend.

McWilliams, a resident of Silicon Valley, was a passionate advocate and supporter of Carnegie Mellon, where he earned three degrees in physics over seven years: bachelor's and master's degrees in 1978 and a Ph.D. in 1981 — and later was a Mellon Institute Fellow. He had come to Carnegie Mellon at the advice of his older brother, Thomas M. McWilliams, who is a CMU double alumnus in electrical and computer engineering, Hertz Fellow and entrepreneur.

McWilliams later was elected to the university's Board of Trustees, serving continuously from 2007 until the time of his passing, lending his expertise to the Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Advancement Committees. In addition, he volunteered in multiple roles, including as a member of the Mellon College of Science Dean's Council and the advisory boards for the Human Computer Interaction Institute and Departments of Mathematical Sciences, Physics and Psychology.

"Bruce brought his contagious enthusiasm and optimism to everything he did on behalf of Carnegie Mellon University," said CMU President Farnam Jahanian. "He was a great friend, brilliant scientist and exceptional entrepreneur. He was also immensely proud of his alma mater and our Tartan community's global impact. While this is an immeasurable loss, I am grateful that Bruce's legacy will continue through his many contributions to CMU."

McWilliams was a serial entrepreneur who led numerous technology companies as CEO, including CMU spinoff Bossa Nova Robotics, Intermolecular, SuVolta, Tessera Technologies (Xperi), and S-VISION. McWilliams and Carnegie Mellon physics double-alumnus Nicholas Colella met in graduate school, collaborated as Mellon Institute Fellows, and later partnered at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), under Drs. Edward Teller and Lowell L. Wood. There, McWilliams led the Laser Pantography Program to laser-write ultra-dense semiconductor interconnections.

McWilliams and Colella spun out the technology and co-founded nChip with several LLNL colleagues, their first startup, launching McWilliams' career arc in semiconductor packaging that led him to Tessera, where he and Colella teamed up to achieve their first initial public offering. At LLNL, their collaboration on an ultrawide-angle telescope inspired McWilliams' lifelong interest in computational astronomy.

"Bruce believes patterns in the cosmos can be discovered by numerically analyzing large sectors of the detectable universe," Colella said. "He believes the universe will tell us its story."

Most recently, McWilliams was serving as CEO of Ultron.AI, a CMU-affiliated startup developing software innovations for the retail sector founded by Marios Savvides, the Bossa Nova Robotics Professor of Artificial Intelligence at Carnegie Mellon. Savvides and his CMU team first began working with McWilliams while he was CEO of Bossa Nova Robotics, partnering to develop the artificial intelligence that would allow the company to scale up production from 15 robots to 550 robots to be used in Walmart stores across the country in less than two years.

"It was no easy feat — it was one mission impossible after another. Bruce drove us hard, but he knew he could count on us. He was 007, and our team was his Q," Savvides said, referencing the iconic James Bond partnership. "He loved CMU, and he loved that fact that the technology at Bossa Nova was done at CMU. Bruce always wanted to give back to CMU; he wanted to make sure that CMU had a mark in everything that he did."

McWilliams was a longtime champion of the sciences at Carnegie Mellon, regularly meeting with university faculty and leadership to learn about science initiatives and recent research developments. Through his extensive philanthropy, he endowed multiple funds that will impact science research and education and continue his legacy at Carnegie Mellon for decades to come.

In 2007, following a series of conversations with CMU faculty about the potential to answer profound questions about the origin of the universe, he provided the gift to endow the McWilliams Center for Cosmology. The center brings together researchers in particle physics, astrophysics, computer science, and statistics to expand humanity's understanding of dark energy and dark matter. Its endowment provides support for faculty and postdoctoral fellows affiliated with the center. Over the years, McWilliams provided additional gifts to fund a series of public lectures featuring prominent figures in the field to help the center’s work reach a broader audience.

"Bruce was more than a benefactor; he was a friend, a mentor and a cherished member of our community. When it came to expanding our intellectual horizons, Bruce was relentless. His involvement extended beyond financial support; he was personally invested in the growth of our center. Whether it was the recruitment of faculty or postdoctoral researchers, Bruce was there, making time to speak with potential colleagues and candidates, offering his insights and unwavering support," said Tiziana Di Matteo, professor of physics and director of the McWilliams Center. "He played a pivotal role in shaping the academic community of the center, nurturing its growth with the same passion he held for the cosmos and physics."

In addition, McWilliams endowed a presidential fellowship for chemistry and physics graduate students in the Mellon College; partnered with alumnus Alexander Knaster to create a scholarship for mathematics undergraduate students; and provided numerous gifts to MCS as well as other areas of the university, including the arts, over his many years of support. His interest in providing fellowship and scholarship support was inspired by his experience receiving a scholarship that made possible his own CMU education. In recent years, he was assisting the university with raising support for its future of science initiative.

"Bruce was always on our side," said Scott Dodelson, head of the CMU Department of Physics. "He thought that fundamental science was really important to be a great university. He was trying to make us — the department and the university — better. And personally, what I learned of him: He was humble, he was optimistic, and he strove to be fearless."

In a 2007 profile, McWilliams said this about his relationship with his alma mater: "By day, I'm a business guy, but at heart, I'm a scientist. My involvement with Carnegie Mellon allows me the opportunity to live out my passion for science and research, and also help to build and support the next wave of technology advancements. I get to learn all the time about the future, which I love."

"Bruce was a successful businessman and entrepreneur, but as he often noted, deep down he was a physicist and mathematician. All of that, plus his great love for Carnegie Mellon, informed the passion and expertise he brought to his service to the university," said David Coulter, alumnus and chair of the CMU Board of Trustees. "He was one of the biggest champions for the sciences at CMU, and we will miss his energy, his devotion and his originality."