Auburn alumnus Walt Woltosz discusses career in developing communication tools
Walt Woltosz is a two-time Auburn aerospace engineering alumnus who went on to develop augmentative communication systems for persons with severe disabilities.
When world-renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking’s ability to communicate was compromised by ALS, it was Woltosz’s Equalizer and EZ Keys programs that allowed Hawking to continue his groundbreaking work.
Since 1981, Words+ Inc., a firm he and his wife Ginger founded, has been a leader in creating state-of-the-art products that “unlock the person” by providing the highest quality communication and computer access tools available.
In 1996, Woltosz founded Simulations Plus Inc. and turned his inventor’s eye to developing simulation and modeling software for drug discovery and development. Today, Simulations Plus products are used by more than 200 pharmaceutical firms, including the world’s top 25, helping to analyze new products and saving millions of dollars in research and development costs.
- What led you to Auburn as a student?
A lucky circumstance! I was on active duty at a U.S. Air Force base in Oklahoma in early 1967 when I received my acceptance letter for the Airman Education and Commissioning Program (AECP). When they asked where I would like to go to school, I said Auburn. They asked what I knew about Auburn. I said I didn’t know anything about Auburn, but a former member of my squadron had gone there a year earlier under AECP and at least I would know someone there. Pure serendipity!
- Why did you decide to major in aerospace engineering for your undergraduate degree, and why did you decide to come back to Auburn for your graduate degree?
Growing up, I always wanted to be an electronics/electrical engineer like my father. He got me into ham radio when I was 12, learning Morse code and electronic circuits and building electronic projects that won first place in my seventh- and eighth-grade science fairs. But when I was accepted to AECP, there were no slots left in electrical engineering that year, so to avoid waiting another year, I agreed to go in industrial engineering after they said I could change if I didn’t like it. After taking engineering statistics in my first quarter, I didn’t like it. So I went to the dean’s office and asked to be transferred to electrical engineering. But I had been given credit for three consecutive circuits courses because of my yearlong USAF technical school, which they would do for anything except electrical engineering, because those courses needed to be taken with calculus, and the USAF courses were not. The Air Force would not extend me beyond a total of eight quarters, and I only had seven left, which would not have been enough. So since I liked airplanes and flying, I switched to aerospace engineering. Again, pure serendipity!
I stayed at Auburn and started on the master’s right after I graduated with my bachelor’s degree. I got out of the Air Force during my senior year, so I was able to stay for graduate school. I had the GI Bill, a 1/3 teaching assistantship and a 1/3 research assistantship, plus a full graduate course load—essentially a 5/3 workload, along with a wife and two kids. I completed all of my coursework and orals except for the thesis defense, which was on a subject that excited my major professor but did not motivate me at all. When I left in August of 1970, the aerospace industry was in a depression, so I went to work as, of all things, an electrical engineer for the Federal Aviation Administration. I got busy with life and the thesis sat untouched. I did that job for one year. The aerospace industry started to open up in 1971 and I went to Huntsville and worked on the Space Shuttle and other programs, moving to the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory at Edwards Air Force Base in California in 1976. I had actually finished another master’s degree in administrative science at UAH earlier in 1976. I had also convinced my major professor, Dr. Richard Sforzini — who was undoubtedly the finest educator I ever had, and that’s saying something because I had so many outstanding professors at Auburn — to let me change my thesis topic to automatic nonlinear design optimization of solid propellant rocket motors, a pioneering effort at the time. I finally received my master’s degree from Auburn in 1977.
- How did Auburn Engineering prepare you for a successful career in the aerospace industry?
In many ways, but I would say that there are four things that were the most important: critical thinking, attention to detail, persistence to work hard when things were tough and teamwork, especially in graduate school where our all-night sessions in the basement of Ross Hall taught us to work together to solve the toughest problems.
- Why did you decide to make the transition from the aerospace industry to the digital communications industry? How did your engineering background prepare you for that transition?
When my wife’s mother had ALS in 1980, I bought a Radio Shack TRS-80 personal computer to try to make something for her to communicate when very few people had a computer in their home. Although I failed to create something that worked for her in the few months I had before she died, I was encouraged to continue developing it by a rehab engineer at Stanford Children’s Hospital. Ginger and I started a company called Words+ Inc. and worked nights and weekends for two years, then quit our jobs in 1983 to go full time. We had Words+ for 30 years, eventually selling it in 2011 to focus on Simulations Plus Inc. in software for pharmaceutical research, which we had established in 1996 and took public on the Nasdaq (symbol SLP) in 1997. For both the communication devices for the disabled, my engineering education gave me the skills to know how to look for information in new areas (before the Internet), how to apply what I learned into new designs, and how to identify good employees to work as a team. In the pharmaceutical industry, I knew right away that I had to hire PhDs with the subject matter expertise, and, fortunately, they were very patient and educated me over a number of years to the point where I was publishing research with them and training PhDs in the pharmaceutical industry in our areas of expertise.
- You have supported Auburn in so many ways—through facilities projects, scholarships and fellowships, faculty professorships, programmatic support, athletics and more. Why is it so important to you to give back to Auburn with your time, talent and treasure?
We have been extremely fortunate with Simulations Plus, which has been steadily profitable and growing for many years. This enables us to consider a variety of charitable opportunities. I know my education at Auburn cost way more than the $150 per quarter tuition at the time, but I don’t know the donors, large and small, who made it possible back then. Auburn is at the top of the list because I firmly believe it is one of the best ways we can “pay it forward” for all the ways we benefitted from the charity of others. Our gifts will affect thousands of students for many years to come, and those students will shape the world in many positive ways. We can think of no better way to leverage our charitable contributions.
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