At a White House ceremony on November 20, 2014, President Obama honors Eli Harari with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Photo by Ryan K. Morris
At a White House ceremony on November 20, 2014, President Obama honors Eli Harari with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Photo by Ryan K. Morris

He’s described as a kindly uncle, a low-key gentleman and one of the most successful executives in the world.

It’s for another distinction – revolutionizing data storage with a technology known as flash memory — that SanDisk founder Eli Harari traveled to the White House on November 20 to receive the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

Without the Tel Aviv-born Harari’s innovations, there could be no digital photography, USB drives, smartphones, tablets, notebooks, e-books, apps or portable game controls.

Upon presenting the medal, President Obama said: “One month after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Eli Harari came to America from Israel to study the effects of radiation on electronics in space.  The physics he learned as a PhD student at Princeton led him to co-found SanDisk, and, eventually, to the creation and commercialization of flash storage technology.  And today, his technology is in millions of portable electronic devices, which our lives would be completely different without.”

Speaking with ISRAEL21c from London, where he was vacationing in October with his wife, Britt, Harari said the award “is a source of pride for myself and my family and all of SanDisk, including the 800 or so employees we have in Israel.”

Now 69 and retired for the past four years, Harari hasn’t forgotten the hurdles that had to be overcome before flash memory became ubiquitous the world over.

“I enjoy explaining to the hundreds of millions who use flash memory everyday how challenging it was to develop this technology and make it accessible and affordable, reliable and pervasive,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

“Over the years, we drove the technology and made it affordable to even the poorest people on earth. Over 25 years, we were able to bring flash-drive cost down by a factor of 100,000 times. If the airline industry could do that, you’d fly from London to New York for one penny. That would entirely disrupt civilization.”

Under the covers

Harari beckons us to give some thought to this technology that powers so much in modern society.

“If you look at SanDisk’s leading product, the 512-gig SD card for digital cameras and other devices, it’s hard to understand how much storage that is. There are 1.5 trillion transistors on that little piece of plastic. Not all of them always work because that’s the nature of very large numbers, but as far as users are concerned, 100 percent of them always work because those that don’t are covered by the others,” Harari explains.

Eli Harari cofounded SanDisk.
Eli Harari cofounded SanDisk.

“The nice thing about flash memory is that if you store your pictures in your iPhone and then you lose it and find it in 50 years, the pictures will still be there. And because it’s extremely compact and uses almost no energy, flash enables people like Steve Jobs to make devices extremely thin, without need for a heavy battery.”

The Israeli company M-Systems, another pioneer in this industry, was acquired by California-based SanDisk in 2006 for nearly $1.6 billion.

“We invented portable storage and flash memory for the mobile world in 1988. Dov Moran and Aryeh Mergi founded M-Systems a year after us. Their approach was software-based, while ours was at the chip and system level. For 17 years we were competitors, but SanDisk’s approach became dominant and now is the only solution,”  Harari explains.

“The fact that we paid $1.55 billion for M-Systems shows how much we valued their invention of USB flash drive and embedded flash storage in smartphones,” he adds. “The combination of what Dov and I developed in our respective companies made a fantastic product and team, and we worked closely together to make it a success.”

SanDisk’s Cruzer Fit USB flash drive.
SanDisk’s Cruzer Fit USB flash drive.

SanDisk now employs more than 8,000 people worldwide, and has more than 5,000 patents and $6.5 billion in annual sales. Harari himself holds some 70 patents in the field of nonvolatile memories and storage systems.

40 years that changed the world

Eli Harari was born in 1945 to Abraham and Genia, prewar immigrants from Poland.

“When I was 13, my parents decided I needed to be educated as an English gentleman, so they sent me to a Jewish school in Brighton, England — one of the best things they could have done for me even though I didn’t think so at the time,” says Harari.

At 18, he came home and began his Israeli military service as a technical clerk in the air force. He was allowed to leave four months early to start studying math and physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and finished his undergraduate degree at Manchester University in England.

“When I returned 12 years later to serve the remaining four months — lecturing about technology to air force officers — I had a wife and two kids,” he recalls.

Afterward, Harari earned a master’s and doctorate in solid-state physics at Princeton University. The family then settled in California, where they and their children remain. Their daughter is a fulltime mother of four children, while their musician son runs a music school.

In 1975, while working at Hughes Aircraft, Harari invented the industry’s first electrically erasable programmable read-only memory (EEPROM), a precursor to flash.

“This was a substantial improvement over the Israeli invention EPROM, by Dov Frohman at Intel,” he says. “EPROM was a critical chip to make microprocessors work, but you could only program it and not easily erase it. I invented a way to erase it electrically.”

The road to SanDisk

In 1983, Harari founded the semiconductor company Wafer Scale Integration. Four years later, he and the board of directors had a falling-out and Harari left, agreeing not to compete with WSI.

“I’d built a good team but it was based on a flawed strategy and I made a lot of mistakes,” he says with characteristic modesty. “I considered the four years to be a fantastic school because it was a failure, and taught me what it takes.”

Harari started a company called SunDisk the day after leaving WSI. His 15-year-old daughter came up with the cheerful name, but it was challenged by Sun Microsystems six years later as a trademark infringement. “So we came to an agreement to change ‘Sun’ to ‘San.’ They sound almost the same, and in some countries, like Israel, they’re spelled the same way.”

In his new venture — joined by cofounders Jack Yuan and current SanDisk CEO Sanjay Mehrotra — Harari continued developing the physics of flash memory. “I saw that the whole industry was focused on storing code only, and was missing a big market opportunity to use flash memory to store multimedia content. In order to make it suitable for this purpose we needed to invent new flash-memory architecture. That was DataFlash.”

The rest is history, and you’ll be able to read all about it when Harari finishes his book “about what I did in the last 40 years that changed the world.”

Meanwhile, he and Britt travel extensively, enjoying the couple-time they missed for the 35 years he was running a company. “We’ve been so many places: up the Amazon River, to Antarctica, to the northernmost island in Norway. And the wonderful thing is, wherever I go I find SanDisk products. That makes me really happy.”