By Jack Mason
Small Times Correspondent
LEONIA, N.J., April 26, 2002 — He holds more than 124 patents, including some of the earliest for tiny pressure sensors micromachined out of silicon, with the first awarded in 1964.
Today, of course, such pinhead-sized devices are better known as MEMS, microelectromechanical systems. But just as the transistor and the Internet were “overnight” tech sensations actually decades in the making, MEMS have had a long gestation period. Indeed, one of the field’s trailblazers has been at it for more than 40 years.
Turning 73 next week, Anthony “Tony” Kurtz, continues to innovate. Chief scientist and
|Anthony “Tony” Kurtz, founder and chief scientist|
of Kulite Semiconductor Products in New Jersey,
stands in front of a painting that was a gift from
senior executives to Kurtz in 1989, the company’s
30th anniversary. It was painted by Ann Adler, wife
of a Kulite sales executive.
“Who do you think started this whole MEMS business?” he says with a sly smile from his corner office in the company’s headquarters, 10 minutes from the George Washington Bridge. “You’re looking at him.” Kurtz points to his 1980 patent, “Compensated Pressure Transducer Employing Digital Processing Techniques,” as the first to marry a micromechanical sensor with electronic computation.
Professor Kenneth “Beau” Farmer, director of New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Microelectronics Research Center and a co-founder of the New Jersey MEMS Initiative, agrees that Kurtz is a seminal figure in micromachines. “Kulite is arguably the first MEMS company, and Kurtz is certainly one of the founding fathers of the field, especially with respect to piezoresistive pressure sensors,” he said.
Kulite, a privately held company (the “Ku” stands for Kurtz), employs almost 500 people who fabricate and assemble about 10,000 sophisticated, high-temperature pressure sensors a month. In recent years Kurtz has expanded the company’s facilities to 100,000 square feet and says the company does more than $50 million in U.S. sales.
Kulite miniature transducers, which convert pressure data into electrical signals, are designed to operate in hostile environments. They are used in jets engines and aircraft hydraulic systems, Formula One racecar motors, military equipment and spacecraft. The company’s customers include General Electric Co., Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce and NASA.
Kurtz also maintains a close relationship with Oxford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his undergraduate and doctoral degree, as well as Columbia University, where he is on the Dean’s Engineering Council.
Rick Osgood, associate director of basic energy sciences at Brookhaven National Laboratory, knows Kurtz well through Columbia, where Osgood is a professor of electrical engineering and applied physics. “Tony has been a pioneer in commercializing MEMS-like devices, well before the term MEMS became popularized,” he said. “At Columbia he’s also played an important role advising on students’ theses, as well as funding research.”
To date, Kurtz has given a total of $1.75 million to Columbia and MIT.
While Kurtz is equally quick with a joke or a barb, he’s built what appears to be a very personal company. A stroll with him through Kulite’s halls reveals that he knows nearly everyone’s name. “Did you know that we pay all or part of college tuition for any employee’s children?” Kurtz asks.
Kulite seems to attract and retain talent, too. On a tour of the company’s bustling fabrication and assembly facilities, Alexander Ned, vice president of sensor operations, mentioned that he has been with Kulite since 1987. Ned came to Kulite straight out of Columbia’s electrical engineering department. In recent years, the company paid for him to get his MBA at New York University. Design engineer Scott Goodman did a work/study internship with Kulite in 1976 while at Northeastern University and has been with the company ever since.
Something else that has lasted at Kulite is Kurtz’s high-value, low-volume business model. “I’d rather make a thousand of something that cost $500 than 100,000 costing five bucks,” explains Kurtz, who got his taste for entrepreneurship while director of research at Honeywell in the late ’50s. “I got into this to make money.” That’s why commodity MEMS products like airbag accelerometers have never been part of Kulite’s strategy.
Kurtz says he always knew he wanted to start his own company. “I like having the board of directors meeting while swimming my morning laps — alone,” he quips. “I knew I wanted to be a scientist, but I didn’t want to work for anyone.”
After a slow start in the early ’60s, Kulite won key contracts developing pressure sensors for fighter jets such as the F-14 and F-15 then taking shape on the Defense Department’s drawing boards. Kulite also built sensors that could measure how nuclear missile silos withstood the pressure of high explosives. Kulite transducers were used in early medical catheters to test conditions inside human hearts.
Today, Kulite is working on a variety of projects, many of them customized to clients’ specifications. It has developed flat pressure sensors that fit flush against the turbine blades inside a jet engine. They enable a jet to save fuel by operating right at the edge of the engine’s stall speed.
In Kulite’s assembly area, rows of technicians work over microscopes on new products such as a miniaturized air speed indicator that may have applications in smaller versions of unmanned airplanes like the U.S. Air Force’s Predator.
Kulite has even developed a pressure sensor that fits inside a spark plug to help automotive engineers better understand pressure waves inside the cylinders of internal combustion engines.
Back in Kurtz’ paneled office, he shows off a large, square 1960s-era circuit board almost a foot on each side. A magnifying glass mounted over the center of this oversized processor reveals a matrix of tiny loops of wire.
“That’s a ferrite loop device, one of the first memory boards,” says Kurtz. He explains that each of the tiny loops of wire stored one bit, with a total capacity of about 36,000 bits. That’s barely enough information to display this sentence.
“I keep that around to remember how far we’ve come,” says Kurtz. Indeed, Kulite and the world of MEMS have come a long way in the 43 years since Tony Kurtz followed his urge to be his own boss.
The twinkle in his eyes suggests the Mr. Micromachine may still have a long way to go.
Reprints of this article are available here.