Connect Inducts Software Pioneer Peter Preuss to Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame

Connect, San Diego’s non-profit group for technology innovation, officially inducted software industry pioneer Peter Preuss into its Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame during a luncheon yesterday that recounted his life story—from a nerd growing up in postwar Berlin to a successful technology entrepreneur and prominent patron of both education and cancer research.

Preuss is the eighth inductee in a pantheon that includes some of San Diego’s biggest names in entrepreneurship and technology innovation, including Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, cancer researcher and venture capitalist Ivor Royston, Idec Pharmaceuticals founder William Rastetter, and SAIC founder J. Robert Beyster.

“The criteria is that they built great companies, but they also gave back to the community,” said Connect CEO (and Xconomist) Duane Roth.

Peter Preuss

Peter Preuss

Preuss was close to completing his doctoral thesis in mathematics at UC San Diego in 1970, when he started a software company that enabled programmers to create pie charts and other graphics on the 10-megahertz “supercomputers” of that era. The company, known as ISSCO (Integrated Software Systems Corp.) grew to be the nation’s leading independent software company then specializing in data representation graphics and graphical information systems, with 32 offices worldwide and two public stock offerings. ISSCO was acquired by Computer Associates in 1986.

Preuss told the luncheon audience that he focused his energy on cancer research after a family member was diagnosed with a brain tumor. With what he described as “entrepreneurial hubris,” he said, “I was absolutely convinced that if I put all my energy into it, that we will find a solution” to cancer. In the process, he founded the Preuss Foundation for Brain Tumor Research and helped start labs focused on neuro-oncology in San Francisco and at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC.

He also served for 15 years on the University of California Board of Regents, developing an interest in education that resulted in the formation of The Preuss School, a UC San Diego-owned high school that prepares San Diego’s underprivileged youth for college.

Preuss, who was born in Berlin in 1943, also recalled what it was like to grow up amid the rubble and reconstruction of postwar Berlin. “My mom told me that she had to go into the cellar twice during labor,” Preuss told the crowd.

After the war, he said a U.S. Army officer “basically adopted our family,” and from the time he was two or three years old, “I fell in love with an American and Americans.” As a youngster, Preuss said, “Sports was something I didn’t know how to spell. Believe it or not, I actually was a bit of a nerd. I loved everything that had anything to do with mathematics, and I hated everything else.” It was only a matter of time, though, before he came to the United States, and Preuss said he arrived in San Diego as a graduate student to study at the newly formed U.C. San Diego.

In the 1960s, Preuss said, “You have to understand that mathematics had absolutely no future in terms of getting a job… In those days, there was [only] a chance of becoming an insurance company mathematician.”

At UCSD, though, Preuss had access to what was at that time “a very powerful supercomputer” and he got a job developing the first computer graphics for UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The work led him to found ISSCO instead of completing his Ph.D.

“We had no beginning capital. I had no concept of what venture capital was,” Preuss recalled. “So for the first five years, we lived on very little money, and very few customers—basically big oil companies and U.S. national laboratories.”

When asked what was the biggest lesson he has learned as an entrepreneur, Preuss said, “Believe in your ideas, and fight for them.” And as a business manager, he added, “Don’t be afraid to hire people who are better than you.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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