When people describe Björn, they often use words like “brilliant,” “warm,” “one of a kind.” He was one of those people who touched lives and left a lasting impression on those around him. Throughout his life, he had many important and meaningful friendships and professional collaborations.
Björn David Jawerth was born on November 25, 1952, in Stockholm, Sweden. As a child, Björn spent many weekends at his family’s country house exploring the surrounding forest with his beloved dog, Ricky, and communing with nature. He liked to go hunting, practiced judo and boxing, and was an accomplished table tennis player. He was also an excellent ice skater, water skier, and windsurfer.
It was already apparent at a young age that Björn was no ordinary person. He did not begin speaking until he was nearly four years old, explaining later in life that he just did not have much to say. By the time he was in high school, Björn had excelled in all of his subjects, achieving a 5.0 (the equivalent of straight A’s) in each class. At the time, getting these kinds of grades at Palmgrenska Samskola was considered a nearly impossible feat. He soon began taking university level courses to compensate for the areas where his high school classes fell short.
While achieving great success in high school, Björn also started working at his parents’ engineering firm, Jawerth Systems. The company was flourishing, with the construction of suspension roofs on stadiums, airport terminals, and other large buildings across Europe. He was involved with many aspects of the company and assisted with the calculations needed for designing these bowed hanging roofs.
Even in the late 1960s, Björn envisioned the importance of technology and computers. After the company acquired one of the first Hewlett-Packard programmable desktop calculators (more accurately an early personal computer and a rare asset at the time), Björn helped his father, David, and mother, Maud, program this scientific calculator. His work at Jawerth Systems was a foreshadowing of what was to come for Björn and his lifelong interest in technology, innovation, and problem-solving.
After graduating from high school, Björn moved to Lund, Sweden, in 1972 to study Mathematics at the University of Lund and Lund Institute of Technology. Within three years, he finished a five-year master’s degree curriculum in Technical Physics and Electrical Engineering, while simultaneously earning a master’s degree in Pure Mathematics. He seldom attended class and earned his two degrees by reading the textbooks on his own and staying ahead. Self-motivation was undoubtedly intrinsic to Björn’s character.
Without pause after his master’s work, Björn began his Ph.D. program in Mathematics under the supervision of his thesis advisor, Professor Jaak Peetre. Being 22, Björn was soon obligated to temporarily leave the university to complete compulsory military service (lumpen), a requirement for all young men in Sweden at the time.
As with many things in Björn’s life, his military service experience did not follow a typical path; rather than completing the conventional training, Björn was instead admitted to the highly competitive Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy in Uppsala (Armén Tolkskolan/Befälsföreningen Militärtolkar) under the tutelage of one of its prestigious founders, Sigvard “Sigge” Lindqvist. There he received rigorous language training in Russian through a program designed to quickly achieve high-level language proficiency.
Despite this rare opportunity, Björn could not ignore that his passions lay elsewhere so he withdrew from the interpreters school to finish his Ph.D. He went on to complete the standard five-year Ph.D. curriculum in just over two years (2.25 years to be exact) with a dissertation entitled “On Besov Spaces.” By the age of 24, Björn held a Ph.D. in Pure Mathematics and set the record for the shortest Ph.D. study period of any student in Sweden at the time.
Though Björn continued to work with the mathematics department in Lund, he sought opportunities to collaborate with mathematicians in the United States. Before long, Björn and his wife found themselves in Bloomington, Indiana, where Björn began work at Indiana University as a Visiting Scholar and then later as a Visiting Assistant Professor. In the winter of 1981, in the midst of a giant snowstorm, Björn’s first daughter, Louise (“Lolo”), was born.
By the fall of the following year, Björn and his small family packed up and moved on to Washington University (St.Louis, Missouri) where Björn worked as a Visiting Assistant Professor and then later as an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics. In the spring of 1984, his second daughter, Nicole (“Niki”), was born. Björn and his family later spent the spring of 1988 in Berkeley, California, where Björn served as a Visiting Associate Professor at the Mathematical Research Institute. They soon returned to Washington University, where Björn became a Full Professor.
One particularly notable achievement of Björn’s early work resulted from his collaboration with Michael Frazier that led to the “phi transform.” This was a formative contribution to the field of mathematics that was later to become known as wavelets, a powerful mathematical technique that fundamentally influenced how we approach multimedia compression and information processing. In particular, it revolutionized digital signal processing and image compression.
Björn’s work drew the attention of the University of South Carolina (Columbia, South Carolina) in 1988, and he was offered a Full Professorship that included access to an impressive array of computer resources. At that time, it was unusual for computers to be widely available, particularly for use in the field of mathematics. He accepted the position, and his endeavors soon attracted grants from a wide range of sources, such as the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR), and the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Throughout his years as a professor, Björn was not only able to focus on research, but also to do something he loved and excelled at: teaching. He taught several courses and was a dedicated advisor and mentor to more than 40 students working toward their master’s and Ph.D. degrees. Several of his students also worked with Björn as he pursued innovative projects outside of academia.
By the late 1980s, when computers and the Internet were things most people had only heard about or seen in movies, Björn, with his nimble and adaptive focus, anticipated the power of computer technology and the use of wavelets as a tool in image compression. He founded Summus, Ltd. (later known as Summus, Inc.) as a way to pursue this opportunity. While running the company, Björn continued his work at the University of South Carolina and in 1993 was named a David W. Robinson Palmetto Professor, an endowed chair at the university.
Over time, Summus became a primary focus for Björn. The company began with a $500 investment and was housed on the third floor of the family home. For the first nine years, it operated without venture capital and relied instead on long-term contracts with large U.S. corporations as well as grants from various government agencies. Summus’s technologies were being used by corporations such as McDonnell Douglas, Magnavox, Raytheon, Booz Allen Hamilton, Symbol Technologies, Corel Corporation, and Compaq, as well as federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD), the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR).
In 1999, Björn moved Summus to Raleigh, North Carolina, to be in the midst of the thriving technology hub known as the Research Triangle. He served in various roles at the company, from Chief Executive Officer to Chief Technology Officer to Chairman of the Board. In 2002, Summus went public with a market capitalization of over $300 million.
Björn left Summus in 2004 and founded 5 examples, inc. to pursue what he saw as the future direction of mobile technology. The company name arose from Björn’s belief that any difficult problem could be solved by first understanding five carefully chosen examples. The company’s most successful innovations include cutting-edge methods for inputting text on electronic devices such as mobile phones.
Björn always kept 5 examples one step ahead in innovation. He embodied one of his favorite quotes from Admiral David Farragut, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” His energy, drive, and positive attitude were unwavering despite being diagnosed with cancer. He continued to design and build new technologies, often working at his bench full of the electronic components, wires, and soldering irons to create prototypes. Even though his productivity began to slow in his last two months, he pursued new ideas and developed further projects for the company.
In September 2013, Björn died at the age of 60, having led a remarkable life. Though he was best known for his work in mathematics and technology, he was a true polymath who acquired a vast amount of knowledge in a dizzying array of subjects – from philosophy and history to neuroscience and visual design. For Björn, no topic or field was unconquerable, and he took great pleasure in gathering knowledge and gaining a thorough understanding of new areas. Björn would have agreed with Michelangelo, who said (at the age of 87), “I am still learning.”
Björn not only had keen insights into his life’s passion, mathematics, but he also tirelessly explored new ideas and pursued new projects, achieving success in academia and business. His love for learning, thinking, and problem-solving led to a legacy of beautiful thought and visionary innovation that will continue to influence the world for many years to come.
Björn is survived by his two daughters, Louise and Nicole; his mother, Maud; his sister, Anne-Sophie Sjöberg; his half-brother, Kjell Jawerth; and his partner of 13 years, Mona Rozovich.
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