AUSTIN, TEXAS—The Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC) violates some fundamental precepts of establishment science. But four years after its creation by a dozen of the country's major high-technology firms, it shows promise of providing American industry with a new model for getting the results of science off the bench and into the market place.
The corporation imposes severe restraints on the free exchange of information—both with the outside world and in-house. It does so in part because its shareholders believe secrecy is a valuable weapon in the ongoing battle with foreign competitors and in part because of the management style of its president, Bobby R. Inman, a former director of the National Security Agency and deputy director of the
Next month Inman will become president and chief executive officer of Westmark Systems Inc., a new, privately owned defense-industry holding company in Texas. He leaves behind, in his words, “a stable experiment” in technology transfer but one that has yet to prove it can have a lasting impact on the field of information management. His successor has not yet been named.
The restrictive atmosphere at MCC, however, is counterbalanced by the inducements it offers its employees. Its management is lean— four staff vice presidents and seven program directors—because, as Inman puts it, “scientists don't like to work for bureaucracies.” The consortium is committed to long-
range projects, with the promise of stable funding. And it awards hefty bonuses, as much as 50 percent of a scientist's salary, for major developments in its labs.
The consortium was the brain-child of William Norris, former chairman of the board at Control Data Corp. Inman, as founding president, chairman and chief executive office, has shaped the company and piloted it through some rough waters in its first few years.
Has it been a success? Its $75 million budget for 1987 is $10 mil lion more than in 1986. Its list of stockholders (companies who pay an initial fee of $250,000 plus their share of research costs for specific projects) has grown to 21, including Hewlett-Packard Co., which decided last month to buy the share held by departing member BMC Industries, Inc.
But the ultimate test will be whether MCC can generate useful products, or what consortium officials like to call “deliverables.” The Cooperative Research Act of 1984, a federal law that has spawned some 50 joint ventures to maintain American competitiveness in the world, says companies such as MCC may not design, produce or market specific technologies. As a result, Inman explained, MCC strives for “generic” technology and “tools” developed to help its scientists pursue their own re search.
One of MCC's best-known deliverables has been an improved TAB (tape automated bonding) machine, which permits the bonding of many more leads to a computer chip than does hard-wire soldering. It is a 20-year-old technology that fell by the wayside in the microchip industry's pursuit of more profitable items.
MCC has acknowledged that it has a production line capable of producing chips in quantity with as many as 328 leads. Present-day personal computer chips have only about 44 leads. The process also in-creases the area of the circuit board that can be used for chips, from about 5 percent or less at present to as much as 40 percent in a process MCC plans to test next year.
John Pinkston, chief scientist at MCC, said that the role and responsibilities of the average scientist at the consortium are no different than at any large company. “It's the environment, including stable funding and the long-term view, that make it attractive.”
Pinkston also could have mentioned the bonuses (up to $35,000), an in-house fitness center, a campus-like atmosphere at the Balcones Research Center near the University of Texas, and a spectacular dining room in a four-story, galleria-like main building. Staffers say that travel budgets are reason-able and research services are good.
Investigators at MCC, as in other proprietary centers, are encouraged to learn in any way possible. But unlike their university-based colleagues, they are restricted in what they can share with other scientists. The restraints are not total; MCC scientists presented. eight of the 48 papers at last summer's International Data Base Conference in Kyoto, Inman said with pride, “more than any other company.”
The original plan at MCC was to use employees from the stockholding companies. It didn't work. “I accepted less than 5 percent of the candidates nominated in the first nine months,” Inman said. Of the current staff of 390, 68 percent are “outsiders.”
Inman believes that “it's too soon to tell” if MCC has become a new model for the transfer of technology from lab to market. One yardstick will be how well the technology is used once it is delivered to the stockholder. “That,” said Pinkston, “is the measure of an organization like this.”
Lannan is a freelance science writer in Breckenridge, Colo.