Similarly, when HP decided to spin off its measurement and equipment business-now Agilent Technologies-management originally leaned toward placing chemist R. Stanley Williams with the new company. But Williams, whose recent advances in molecular computing received international attention (see Q&A, TR September/October 1999), apparently proved such a hot commodity that he was kept in the HP fold.
All of which underscores the fact that there is more to corporate science than just science. The more subtle payoffs include: Covering the corporate backside. While it is relatively easy for research managers to focus R&D on areas likely to affect their firm’s interests, it is much harder to be sure nothing has been overlooked. Small but well-considered basic research projects can keep a company’s hand in the bigger game in case that something else turns up. As HP chief executive Carly Fiorina says about the necessity of pursuing alternatives to silicon: “You’ve got to start now or risk being left behind or missing out altogether.” (see Q&A, this issue) Building ties to university science so that companies are able to understand and exploit what comes out of academic labs. Retired NEC research executive Michiyuki “Mickey” Uenohara, who led his company’s vast expansion into basic science in the late 1980s, says it’s true that universities should be the center of basic studies. “However,” he notes, “it does not excuse industry from performing basic research. We have to have excellent basic research, otherwise we cannot fully utilize university’s basic research.”Creating a “culture of research,” to use the words of Bell Labs vice president of research Bill Brinkman, that will attract top scientists. Hiring the scientific elite raises the cachet and standards of the operation-and in turn brings in more recruits. For example, it was the Bell Labs culture that enticed highly recruited physical chemist Lisa Dhar, who joined the enterprise five years ago after finishing her doctorate at MIT. “Having that mix of long-term and applied research is a very compelling aspect of Bell Labs,” she notes. “And that drew me in.”Getting a fundamental perspective on commercial problems. Locating defects on an integrated circuit holding 200 million transistors, for example, is an immense problem. IBM physicists Jeffrey Kash and James Tsang were studying some exotic aspects of the optical spectroscopy of semiconductors when they realized that the infrared light transistors emit as they switch could overcome this obstacle. Their Picosecond Imaging Circuit Analyzer (PICA) tool now tracks these emissions over intervals of one-trillionth of a second-a far better solution than the Band-Aid approaches often forced on manufacturing engineers. “You can see every transistor light up as it switches,” says Tom Theis, director of physical sciences at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Laboratory in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. “So if one is slow because of a defect, you’ll find exactly that device.” Last November, IBM licensed PICA to semiconductor test and measurement provider Schlumberger.Public relations. AT&T may not have made money off the transistor. But the PR impact of its six Nobel Prizes (11 prize winners) and litany of important patents is priceless. Chairman and chief executive Rich McGinn recognized this when Lucent spun off from AT&T in 1996. He placed his headquarters inside Bell Labs and brought the famous research facility into the corporate logo: “Lucent Technologies. Bell Labs Innovations.”
Beyond all these factors is one critical point: Although places like Bell Labs, IBM and GE became famous for their basic research, science alone did not make them great. Instead, it was their ability to bring together a wealth of talents and viewpoints-scientists with engineers, chemists with mathematicians, deep thinkers with the practical-minded. And from that volatile combination-rather than from basic research itself-leaps the spark of discovery.
Bell Labs’ Lisa Dhar experienced the power of such combinations firsthand a few years ago, when she began studying optical holography. This field, which seeks to use light to store data, has long promised unrivaled storage capacity, but it has lacked a good recording medium. Dhar was part of a team of engineers, mathematicians, optical experts, chemists and engineers that not only fashioned a new polymer storage material, but also created a working prototype of a high-density recording system. “There was this incredible feedback that would go on that really accelerated the progress,” she recalls. Late last year, Lucent signed an agreement with 3M spin-off Imation to try and develop a product with 25 to 100 times the capacity of today’s DVDs-and may even launch a startup of its own to sell the technology.
Viewed in the light of these experiences, it often makes perfect sense for a firm to participate in far-out ventures like quantum or molecular computing that may never provide their own revenue streams. Not only does it provide a lot of buzz, the work helps attract good people, and researchers probably learn some math, chemistry or atomic physics that can be applied to more practical problems.
Top companies know this and often insist on the full package in research, including some blue-sky studies. These efforts never represent a very large fraction of the company’s overall R&D budget-and they may never yield a Nobel Prize. But even without a scientific breakthrough, the payoffs can be incalculable.