Moving US technology out of laboratories to the marketplace

The finishing touches ought to be complete at Microelectronic and Computer Technology Corporation's new building here about the time Bobby Ray Inman leaves his position as the groundbreaking research consortium's builder and leader. Mr. Inman, largely credited with making MCC work, and thus proving that joint research by otherwise competing American companies could work, announced recently that he would step down as the four-year-old consortium's chief executive at the end of the year.

Despite a wistful glance at his office view of a Texas hill-country landscape trailing off to the distant Austin skyline, Inman says the mission he accepted to get the consortium off and running is largely complete: ``I'm really an innovator in my heart, not a manager.''

Now the retired admiral and former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency will move on to a new endeavor, perhaps related to his concern that new American technology does not move quickly enough from laboratory to the marketplace.

``There's nothing we can do from within MCC to quicken that pace,'' Inman says. ``You can put out a lot of water troughs with a lot of water in them, but you can't make the horses drink.''

Inman says he is pleased with the work being done in the consortium's laboratories, in such areas as computer-aided design, semiconductor packaging, software development, and miniaturization. He adds that as the consortium has stepped up its delivery of new technology to member companies -- including Control Data, 3M, Digital Equipment, Bell, Westinghouse, and Boeing -- many of them have improved at integrating that technology into their products.

``I take it as a sign of satisfaction that the members have generally decided, as new companies came on, they would increase research rather than decrease their participation,'' he adds. MCC's original roster of 10 companies has grown to 21, while the number of employees involved in research has blossomed to 450 and should grow to 525 next year.

Yet he feels that the United States, despite what he says is ``still the world's greatest base for creating new technology,'' has not learned to turn that technology into products for the marketplace fast enough. ``I had hoped that the reality of Japanese competition would cause these [MCC] companies and the rest of American companies to start producing faster,'' he says.

According to Inman, the stumbling blocks range from cultural traits, to business principles as taught in the colleges of business administration, to this country's rules on capital formation.

In Japan, the banks are the overseers, putting up the money and guiding the investment through to fruition, he says. The bank and the company developing the product are connected. Also, interest rates in Japan are lower, so ``there isn't that preoccupation with a quick return.''

In the US, on the other hand, there is more ``standoff'' distance between the lending institution and ``those taking the technology to the marketplace,'' he says. Relatively high interest rates lead to a stronger focus on short-term return.

Another hurdle, he adds, is adjusting to an international marketplace where US companies can no longer compete by focusing on a product's cost, as they basically have since the 1960s, he says.

``Our foreign competition is now showing up with first-rate technology and faster delivery,'' he explains.

Still, he believes the US can meet the challenge, and it won't result from teaching everyone ``Japanese Management [Course No.] 101,'' he adds. Either US companies must come up with their own systems for exploiting technology faster, he says, ``or we're going to find those same ideas being applied elsewhere with the end result being successful sales in the US marketplace.''

The native Texan helped forge MCC's ties to the University of Texas and has become an articulate spokesman for stronger ties between industry and academia. His destination after an interview last week was the Texas Legislature, where he continued lobbying against proposed budget cuts in higher education.

Inman is still weighing options, but he thinks he could find himself at the helm of a high-tech company or involved in capital creation for product development. ``Don't be surprised,'' he adds, ``if you see me in a place where I can make decisions to move technology faster.''

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