Min Kao

UT Knoxville, ’74, ’77

Min Kao
Photo by UT Knoxville Video & Photography

Part of the Tennessee Alumnus100 Distinguished Alumni feature.

Personable. Private. Philanthropic. Any story about Min Kao tends to use these words to describe the engineer who co-founded and leads Garmin, a leading maker of navigation and wearable technology for aircraft, boats, cars, outdoor activities and athletics.

A native of Taiwan, Kao came to the United States in 1973 and earned a master’s degree in 1974 and a doctorate in 1977, both in electrical engineering, from UT Knoxville. Kao then worked for several companies developing navigational systems.

In 1989, he teamed with fellow engineer Gary Burrell to create consumer uses for global positioning systems first used by the military. The result was Garmin, a play on both men’s first names. Today, Garmin has more than 11,500 employees in 70 offices worldwide. In 2016, Forbes magazine listed Kao among its 400 richest Americans.

Despite Kao’s phenomenal success, the Wichita Eagle has described the Kansas resident as modest and quick to credit his company’s rank and file for its successes: “At Garmin, Min Kao is Min. Not Kao. Not Mr. Kao.”

Kao and his wife, Fan, committed $12.5 million to a new engineering building at UT with one stipulation—the state would match the gift two to one. The state agreed, and the $37.5-million project became the first matching arrangement for a new academic building in Tennessee.

The Kaos also donated $5 million to create the Min H. Kao Scholars and Fellows endowments and the Kao Professorship.

“The University of Tennessee opened its doors and offered me an opportunity to grow in my field,” he said at the Min Kao building dedication in 2012.

“I hope this new facility will allow others to pursue their dreams and will further position UT as a gateway to great things in engineering and innovation.” Garmin received the Economist magazine’s prestigious 2012 Innovation Award for Consumer Products.