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T. Z. Chu: Leading the Way


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I Try to Set An Example, said Tao Zeun “T. Z.” Chu (B.S. ’57), one of the College of Chemistry’s most tireless supporters. Chu responded to the very first fundraising appeal by the college almost 20 years ago and has been a generous and dedicated volunteer ever since.

He is one of the founders of Finnigan Corporation, which dominated the market for mass spectrometers for nearly three decades.

“I enjoy my life and realize how lucky I am to have had the opportunities that I have had,” said Chu. As a teenager, Chu and his family fled the Communist regime in his native Shanghai and temporarily settled in India, where he attended high school. He then left India in 1952 to study at Berkeley, thousands of miles away from his family and home.

“I was drawn to Berkeley because of its reputation in science and engineering,” said Chu. He found Berkeley to be quite demanding, especially as a chemistry major who had to compete with Korean War veterans eager to make up their studies after being away.

“I had to study hard, but I also learned about life, philosophy and cultures, usually after midnight and mostly from fellow students. I thrived in that environment, learning as much chemistry and interpersonal skills as I could.”

His experience at Berkeley prepared him for the technological world that was on the horizon, Chu noted. He has spent his career working with scientific instrumentation. In 1967 Chu was the general manager of Varian Associates’ chromatograph and spectrophotometer divisions when he and a few scientist and engineer friends formed Finnigan Corporation in order to develop a combination GC-MS (gas chromatography-mass spectrometry) system. Chu continued to work at Varian and was an investor in Finnigan, while the other founders worked to develop the complex machines for which they eventually became famous.

At that time, MS instruments were complex, expensive and difficult to operate and maintain, except by experts. There were also incompatibilities between the GC and the MS systems that needed to be reconciled. Chu joined the company as CEO in 1969 to offer leadership in the business and strategic side of the company.

“Our first real success was with environmental chemistry because our instrument was able to differentiate isomers of PCB and DDT from residues found in environmental samples in an Artic ice core sample,” he explained. This could not be done with GC, then the most important analytical instrument for organic compound analysis. After these findings were published, environmental laboratories all over the world began ordering the Finnigan system in order to analyze pesticide residues.

As the systems became more widely used, the company made them increasingly automated and user-friendly, with a built-in library algorithm to identify the compounds. Finnigan went on to pioneer new applications including pharmocokinetics, illicit drug testing, and protein sequencing. It also acquired other mass spectrometer companies and entered the high-resolution, isotope-ratio, and time-of-flight mass spectrometer fields.

Chu retired as CEO from Finnigan in 1990, two years after the company was bought by Thermo Instrument Systems, Inc. and later renamed ThermoFinnigan. He then worked for Hambrecht and Quist in investment ventures before serving as president for Hoefer Pharmacia Biotech, Inc., a position from which he retired in 1997. He now serves on the boards of several public and private companies and nonprofit organizations, including the Board of Trustees for the UC Berkeley Foundation and the College of Chemistry’s Advisory Board.

Chu enjoys giving back to the institutions that, in his words, “invested much in him along the way.” Along with his wife, Irmgard, he is a major supporter of the high school in India that served as a sanctuary during a chaotic time in his life, and he returns there two to three times every year to attend board meetings and to serve as a volunteer. He has also been involved in numerous fundraising campaigns for the College of Chemistry, and this spring he received the UCBF Trustees’ Citation in honor of his work with the campus’s New Century Campaign.

In addition, he and Irmgard, who is Swiss, have hosted Berkeley scholars visiting from Switzerland for decades. “We always had Swiss goodies, current magazines and books at home that were not readily available back then in the Bay Area, and our home became a popular gathering place,” Chu explained. “We have made a lot of good friends this way.”


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