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Success Story: Varian

by SRP on March 16, 2024

Only one company can claim the title of being the first business to locate in Stanford Research Park, and that company is Varian Associates, today known as Varian, A Siemens Healthineers Company.

While Russell Varian earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Stanford in the 1920s and then worked for Humble Oil, his younger brother Sigurd dropped out of California Polytechnic State University and took up an interest in flying. As a pilot for Pan Am, he confronted just how difficult it was to detect other planes in flight and land safely in low visibility. Throughout the 1930s, Sigurd became preoccupied with the vulnerabilities of flying and grew determined to make it safer. At the same time, he was increasingly concerned about the rise of Adolf Hitler. Specifically, Sigurd worried that Hitler could easily establish military bases in America’s neighboring countries and, due to the absence of technology to detect planes at night, drop bombs on American soil under the cover of darkness.

Sigurd approached his brother to create some sort of radio-based device that could detect aircraft in flight. Working in isolation, they realized they needed help, which they sought in Russell’s college roommate, William Hansen, by then a professor at Stanford. Hansen introduced the brothers to David Webster, the head of Stanford’s physics department. In short order, a clever arrangement was conceived: The brothers would work out of the University at no cost, and in exchange the University would receive a share of the royalties earned from patents born from the brothers’ work while at Stanford.

In 1937, Russell and Sigurd built a prototype of their klystron technology, the first tube capable of generating electromagnetic waves at microwave frequencies. Having caught wind of the klystron, the company Sperry Gyroscope gave the brothers a contract to continue their work with them in Boston. While others were also working on radar technologies, the klystron was the first radar device light enough for planes. Their groundbreaking airplane radar is credited with helping the Allies win World War II.

After the war, the brothers returned to California to establish Varian Associates, with the intent to commercialize klystron and pursue research and development around what would become magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the underlying technology for radiation therapy, small linear accelerators, and more. Five years later, in 1953, Varian moved into the first building in what was then known as Stanford Industrial Park. With Varian’s arrival in the Research Park, Silicon Valley was underway.

By 1999, Varian had grown to a point that it was spun-off into three distinct companies, two of which would go on to be sold to other companies. Today, Varian Medical Systems, which is primarily focused on radiation therapy and medical imaging devices, is still headquartered in the Research Park. In 2020, Siemens acquired Varian Medical Systems, which now operates under the Siemens Healthineers banner.

True to its legacy, Varian continues to push the envelope—today, in the fight against cancer. In addition to its suite of imaging and radiation technologies, Varian has recently introduced its newest and most advanced technology in cancer treatment: Ethos, an Adaptive Intelligence solution. Ethos layers radiation therapy with artificial intelligence, enabling physicians to deliver far more personalized, targeted, and responsive treatment to patients and reduce the radiation’s damage to surrounding, healthy tissue. A company born of a desire to make flying safer carries that overarching goal of improved human outcomes through all of its work to this very day.

In 2023, Varian and the Research Park marked the 70th anniversary of partnership, one in which we take great pride. Varian helped the nascent Research Park attract more companies. And Varian’s long history and ongoing success is a testament to what’s possible when entrepreneurship, science, academia, talent, and funding collide by design.


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