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Lab entrepreneurs: Q&A with Grant Willson

How do you make entrepreneurs from grad student researchers? A QandA with Grant Willson, legendary for laboratory and classroom work resulting in new technologies shares how he infuses students with his same entrepreneurial spirit.

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Dr. Grant Willson, the Rashid Engineering Regents Chair, has been a Cockrell School of Engineering faculty member for 17 years after serving as research director for IBM. He earned a bachelor of science degree from University of California, Berkeley, a master’s degree from San Diego State University and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He was born and raised in Northern California.

How do you make entrepreneurs from graduate student researchers? A QandA with Grant Willson, legendary for laboratory and classroom work resulting in new technologies, shares how he infuses students with his same entrepreneurial spirit.

What area of research interests you the most right now?
The thing that is moving the fastest is our imprint lithography activity. It’s a high resolution printing technique that I developed with S.V. Sreenivasan, a colleague in the Mechanical Engineering Department. It is a lower cost method of making very high resolution patterns (used in the semiconductor and other industries). We started a company (Molecular Imprints) here in Austin that seems to be doing well. It now has 120-plus employees and is selling many millions of dollars worth of product per year. We’re very proud of that.

How do you identify opportunities to transfer research to the marketplace?
We familiarize ourselves with industry issues and look at those things that are gating progress. Then we search for opportunities where, if we could develop a material that had a specific set of characteristics, we could enable something that is sitting there waiting to happen. It’s like striking a match to newspaper — you know that it’s going to burn if you could just find the match. We try to pick projects where we don’t have to sell the material; there is already a need if we can simply produce a substance with the requisite set of characteristics. Those are the real opportunities.

Does industry influence the work you choose to do?
There is a network of people who are the technical leaders of their companies, the Intel fellows and the IBM fellows, and more, who are really very familiar with what we’re looking for, which are problems that are in desperate need of solutions. Generally, there are other people working on the same problems, so there’s a time crunch and it becomes a race — it’s fun.

Do you enjoy solving those problems?
There are some people who, because of their interests or makeup, derive their greatest satisfaction from answering important questions that are pure science. Then there are others who derive satisfaction from seeing people use the things they have developed. I guess I am a member of the second species. We certainly try to do the best science that we possibly can, and it’s the science that underpins all our endeavors. But the goal is to see somebody use what we’ve done in a manufacturing application. It’s pretty thrilling when work you’ve done is published and read by others, but watching somebody use your work creates another level of satisfaction for me. I can’t really explain it, and it doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it’s very satisfying.

What makes for a successful relationship with industry?
We’ve had a long association with SEMATECH that has been particularly valuable. They are devoted to developing leading edge technology and they provide financial support for students — those are two important things. But they also represent a consortium of semiconductor companies, all of which are interested in the projects that we’re doing. If you write a proposal and get an award from them to support the work, you know the work you’re doing has already been sanctioned by a cross section of the customers for that work. That’s a very good and healthy thing.

One of the reasons we like to work with the semiconductor industry is because they are in a continuous and nearly frantic quest to improve the quality of their products, and their progress is limited by physical and chemical engineering limitations, fundamental limitations. They are willing and can afford to take much greater chances than can, for example, the pharmaceutical industry. These guys are grabbing stuff from our laboratory and trying to use it before we’re sure we can even make it twice. It’s wonderful. In this particular little niche, if you can make it work, they will adopt it immediately.

Do you encourage entrepreneurialism in your students?
I don’t know that I know how to do that explicitly, but it seems to happen spontaneously. Maybe I just spread that infection. I’m proud to say that by the time they graduate most of my students are pretty well known in the area they are working. They see these opportunities and they get positive feedback from professionals working in the industry who are extremely interested in what the students are doing. That inspires them. The thing that makes it work is the quality of the students we’re able to recruit. They’re incredibly good kids, frighteningly bright and very, very motivated. I don’t think everyone fully understands the quality of the graduate students that we have here. I am a very lucky man to have had the opportunity to work with these young people.