How Taiwan plans to leap from shoes into software

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Once upon a time, there were seven extremely bright young Chinese computer specialists holding well-paying jobs with the Xerox Corporation in California.

But all of them dreamed of returning home to develop their own company. So one day they quit Xerox and did just that. Now they are being hailed here as pioneers of a trend that could eventually plug the longstanding ''brain drain.''

In 1980, the seven formed Microtek International Corporation, based in the new Hsinchu Science-Based Industrial Park. In the first full year of operation ( 1981) they earned around $700,000. This year the prediction is $2.5 million.

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Ten products have already been marketed, and 16 more are planned this year. Microtek's biggest success has been with a ''micro in-circuit emulator'' (MICE), which enables computer engineers to develop and evaluate hardware and software programs for microprocessor-based products.

With applications increasing almost daily there is a growing worldwide demand for more versatile MICE. Microtek claims its device has more functions and features than similar US ones, and are also a lot cheaper. This year, it began selling in the United States.

''What we are trying to prove here is that the Silicon Valley success story can be repeated in Taiwan if the right environment is created,'' says Microtek's young president, Bobo Wang. He holds a doctorate in computer science from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and worked as a consulting engineer for Xerox.

''In the past, Taiwan could not provide proper training or good job opportunities, so a move overseas became inevitable for many people. Now, however, there is a vast reservoir of highly trained people who can be lured home if conditions are right.

''Although we all had good jobs with Xerox, we dreamed of having our own company here. As soon as we heard about Hsinchu we felt the moment had come.''

Some government economic planners see Microtek as a shining example of what Taiwanese industry should look like in another decade, when it is hoped that high technology will have replaced cheap labor as the country's main selling point.

Mr. Wang agrees: ''We are already exporting worldwide and have just concluded an agreement with Siemens of West Germany, which will buy our product and marry it to their own system.

''Before, we were buying from companies like Westinghouse and General Electric, and the assumption was that the technology transfer always meant us buying from them. But Microtek is now proving that Taiwan can export technology too.''

The company is growing fast. It now employs about 50 engineers and technicians, and has no problem attracting good local people, says vice-president Carter Tseng, also a UCLA graduate and a former consulting engineer for Xerox in microcomputer design.

''We advertised recently to fill several new positions and got over 50 responses, including 10 with master's degrees and several now working for foreign-affiliated companies.

''It's exciting controlling your own destiny. If we can maintain the present momentum, there is every chance Taiwan will be mentioned alongside Japan someday.''

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