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Over the Wall

From the editor in chief
September 1, 1999

Just a couple of years ago, Stan Williams was a professor at UCLA and, well, he wasn’t a household name. Now he’s on his way there-at least in the households that pay close attention to emerging technologies. His story is instructive.

After 15 years in academia, Williams had begun to miss the sense of connection to the business world he had once felt at Bell Labs. At just about the same time, Hewlett-Packard, the venerable electronics giant, was having a career crisis of its own. Like most computer companies, HP had emphasized the D in R&D. But the most farseeing types at HP realized that its ability to thrive in the future would depend on its capacity to solve some fundamental problems-in particular, the looming physical barriers to cramming ever more circuitry onto silicon chips.

Enter Professor Williams. Forsaking tenure at a mighty university, he moved to HP to set up the company’s first basic research lab. Now, after only four years at HP, Williams thinks he and his colleagues may have found a way over the wall that many experts believe silicon technology is going to hit in about 2010.

To find out what Williams’ remarkable scheme is, you’ll need to read the penetrating Q&A by Senior Editor David Rotman on page 92. But before you do, let me draw out a few lessons from this tale.

First, the membrane between basic research and commercialization of new technologies in the marketplace is extremely thin, and porous, and getting thinner all the time. Many creative university researchers have their hand in some form of commercial venture-a startup, a consulting firm, a big technology company. And, as Stan Williams’ trek from Bell Labs to UCLA to HP shows, it has become easier for researchers to move back and forth between academia and the private sector, taking their intellectual capital with them.

The second lesson is that big discontinuities in technology require thinking way outside the box. Williams’ ideas for the chemical assembly of computational circuits stem not from traditional chipmaking techniques but from chemistry and nanotechnology. His ability to see the possibilities for computing in distant fields no doubt owes something to his time at a university, where ideas from disparate areas of study are constantly jostling-in the faculty lounge, in the hallways, on the squash courts.

The third lesson comes directly from Williams himself, who tells Rotman that the end of silicon technology will create openings for small, nimble new companies. Many big chip makers, he argues, will be too heavily invested in existing technology to make a rapid changeover. He concedes that, despite his confidence in his own line of exotic research, the eventual winner in the race to succeed silicon will emerge from a vigorous competition among many approaches. But where will these new paradigms originate? Some will come from tiny startups, fueled by venture capital, enthusiasm and brilliant ideas, in many instances brought fresh from universities by graduate students and junior faculty. Others will take root at R&D labs of large companies that understand the value of investing in ideas.

And wherever those new technologies are coming from, we’ll find them and bring them to you.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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