Cathie Anderson

Cathie Anderson: Computer whiz struggled in high school but now earns millions with Rocklin business

Ken Gracey was the better student, graduating from UC Davis with a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering. His older brother Chip Gracey, however, was the one who founded the $7 million-a-year company that they run together in Rocklin.

The younger brother relished telling the story of how Chip struggled in school, how their parents hotly debated his future and why that all changed. While still a junior at Mira Loma High School, Chip designed an accessory for the old Commodore 64 computers that earned upward of $100,000 in revenue. After giving this columnist a while to absorb this history, Ken Gracey moved to current events: Parallax, the company that Chip founded 25 years ago, gets close to half its revenue from the robots and microcontrollers that it sells to schools for their math and science classes.

Parallax’s success in the education market started with an integrated circuit board known as the BASIC Stamp. It is much like circuits that run microwave keypads, car displays or any other electronic device that requires a tiny CPU, memory and programmability. Chip Gracey developed the BASIC Stamp in the mid-1990s, when such onboard computers were primarily the province of engineering students or graduates. It broke down a barrier for hobbyists, allowing them to build their own computer-run devices.

“It’s still incredibly popular,” Ken Gracey said. “What it did is it made it possible for anybody to program chips, like people who know nothing about programming chips.”

The BASIC stamp sells at Radio Shack, Fry’s, and other retail outlets around the world, and its success funded Parallax’s development of an even more powerful microcontroller. Parallax introduced its eight-core Propeller chip in 2006, several years before the giant chip companies rolled out dual-core and quad-core chips that have speeded up today’s computers. The Propeller chip is expensive, so you won’t find it in low-cost devices. Roughly a million of the chips go into pricey products such as 3D printers, solar power arrays, medical devices and lighting displays.

“When you’re an engineer and you develop something, you sometimes are willing to pay a lot for the chip to get the job done quickly,” Ken Gracey said. “That’s the niche we fit.”