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Visionary entrepreneur pays it forward

McGill alumnus Rubin Gruber opens doors for hundreds of Science and Engineering students

Rubin Gruber

“My whole life is luck. Everything is luck,” says Rubin Gruber, BSc’65, DSc’14.

Skill clearly played a role, too, for Gruber, a visionary entrepreneur who was inducted into the Massachusetts Telecom Hall of Fame in 2004.

“You could say that. Possibly. But for sure luck,” he says.

Gruber mentions his first job, fresh from graduate school, as a research mathematician at General Motors Research Labs in Michigan, where he had the good fortune to have a tech-savvy boss who knew how a newfangled machine called a computer worked.

“That computer changed my life,” Gruber told students at Convocation in 2014 when he received his honorary degree from McGill.

“I got in at the beginning of a technological revolution in America.”

A Montreal native, Gruber carved out a successful career in the United States as an entrepreneur and pioneer in voice-over-Internet protocol. While he looked ahead to the future to develop business ideas, Gruber kept a foot firmly planted in his past.

Gruber has helped hundreds of McGill students through a bursary and undergraduate research awards in Science and Engineering, which bear his name.

As a math and physics student at McGill, Gruber received the J.W. McConnell Scholarship for four years. “I could never have gone to school without it,” he says.

The scholarship was part of the impetus for launching his own bursary at McGill in 1997, but so were his parents who, despite their modest means, instilled in him the notion that “you must give” to others.

The Rubin Gruber Scholarship has been granted 284 times – and counting. Awarded on the basis of academic standing and financial need to undergraduate students in McGill’s Faculty of Science or Engineering, it has benefitted 255 students to date, some of whom have received it multiple times.

Moreover, the Rubin Gruber Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering Award (SURE) and the Rubin Gruber Science Undergraduate Research Award (SURA) have benefitted 179 students to date.

Incredibly, that’s only part of the story. Gruber returns on a regular basis to McGill campus where he meets with and mentors students and aspiring entrepreneurs. He helps the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship and has served as a judge at its flagship startup competition.

“The feeling is beyond belief,” Gruber says of helping students.

‘An incredible enabler’

In May, the McGill Alumni Association honoured Gruber for his many efforts in support of McGill students with the Alumni Student Engagement Award.

“He’s just an incredible enabler,” says Tomlinson Professor of Chemistry Bruce Lennox, Dean of McGill’s Faculty of Science.

“We talk about impact, we have impact statements, impact reports. This is just off-scale. And it lands exactly where we want all of our efforts to be,” Lennox says.

For the summer research awards, undergraduate students do real research in real research labs, Lennox says. “The SURA pays half of their salary and the other half comes from the research supervisor from research grants. It’s a dream of students to work in a research lab. It’s completely impossible to realize that dream unless they can make $6,000. Otherwise they have to go and work at Second Cup.”

When Gruber meets with recipients of his summer research awards, he “is about the best I’ve ever seen” in terms of someone coming from the outside and being able to engage with students so quickly, Lennox says.

“He has them in the palm of his hand and they have him in the palms of their hands.”

Born from logic. Made by foresight

McGill taught him how to think, Gruber says, noting math and physics are all logic and figuring out how to solve problems. “And, of course, that’s the rest of your life. You have to learn how to do that.”

He made terrific friends – ties he has kept to this day. His math/physics class of 1965 reunites at Homecoming every fall.

Like the rest of his class, Gruber headed stateside for graduate school with the intention of getting his PhD. He earned his master’s in mathematics at Wayne State University, then received an offer to work at General Motors Research Labs.

“I drove my Ford Mustang onto the G.M. parking lot – a real no-no,” Gruber joked to McGill students when he received his honorary degree.

Gruber later became a serial entrepreneur. He and a few colleagues would sit in a room, imagine themselves five years hence, and try to figure out what people would want to buy and use. “And then take the backwards step to where we are, and how do we get there? And that’s how we started companies,” Gruber says.

His second company tried to integrate voice and data, reasoning that running voice over a data line would be infinitely cheaper than running data over a voice line. But the technology wasn’t there yet.

“We kept trying to do it over and over and over again. That was 1980. And by 1997, the technology became real and we were able to do voice over data,” says Gruber who that year co-founded Sonus Networks, which built packet switches that telephone companies could buy instead of space-consuming circuit switches.

Gruber loved starting companies “because there were ideas. I loved building something of value from nothing. And watching the kids do it. I didn’t do it. They did it,” he says of his employees.

No-nonsense advice for would-be entrepreneurs

Gruber sees entrepreneurs all the time, and says a common mistake is people going on and on about how wonderful the technology is. “They’re not even selling anything to you…At least, give me an idea of why I think somebody would ever buy it. What’s it gonna do? I don’t care how great the technology is, what are we doing it for?”

He tells them that with each of his companies – and many were complex – “If I can’t explain this to my mother in one or two sentences, I won’t do the company.

“So whatever you do, if you cannot explain it easily to somebody who knows nothing about what you’re talking about, don’t do it.”