Changing mindsets is key to success

Click here to enlarge image

June 17, 2005 – The Washington Technology Center’s (WTC) Microfabrication Laboratory is celebrating its tenth anniversary. Like any entrepreneurial venture, we experienced successes and challenges in achieving this milestone. It’s how we faced those challenges and leveraged our successes over the last decade that has led this public laboratory to become a regional center for research and innovation.

When launching an ambitious project like a public laboratory, two elements are critical. First, have a clear vision. Second, set a path for achieving this vision.

When WTC opened its Microfabrication Laboratory in 1995, MEMS was beginning to gain attention as a viable technology with strong market potential. The 15,000 square-foot facility offered a space where academic and industry researchers could take advantage of leading-edge process equipment and small-scale prototyping.

Washington had a strong research base in MEMS and companies were beginning to see the technology’s market potential. WTC capitalized on this by focusing the lab’s MEMS research and development capabilities. It integrated MEMS into its programs, positioned MEMS as an emerging industry in the state and supported MEMS projects through research grants. Washington now has a robust MEMS industry cluster and the Microfabrication Laboratory is a fully functional, self-supporting R&D resource for researchers and engineers worldwide.

Long-term commitment is essential for operational success. It is not enough to simply ride on the coattails of an industry boom. In 2000, WTC tried to capture a share of the photonics market. It was believed that the lab could attract photonics clients by shoehorning MEMS processes towards this effort without a large investment in equipment and infrastructure. This approach had short-term success. The lab benefited from the market surge and captured overflow from the shortage of available R&D facilities. However, without the long-range planning needed to carve out a niche, business didn’t hold once the hype subsided. Researchers migrated to facilities that had invested fully in photonics and we missed an opportunity to distinguish ourselves as an industry leader.

WTC is taking this to heart as the next generation of technologies emerges. Nanotechnology is the perfect example. The Washington Nanotechnology Initiative is underway, creating a framework for investing in facilities, education, job skills training and industry growth. WTC is committed to making the Microfabrication Laboratory the center for nanotechnology research in Washington.

The Microfabrication Laboratory opened its doors with an ambitious goal. Located on the University of Washington campus in Seattle, the lab set out to be a resource for academic research teams and industry clientele. This hybrid model didn’t fit a public facility’s typical mold. Most engineers draw a distinction between academic research labs and commercial foundries. Academics tend to view the lab from the perspective of a facility. Their priority is access to equipment; they don’t always understand the financial commitment required to run a lab. Industries see the lab as a resource. They are willing to pay user fees to have access to reliable turnkey processes, thus avoiding hiring research staff or building facilities during early-stage development. We had to show our customers that a public laboratory could be both a center for cutting-edge scientific research and a resource for commercial product development.

Managing a shared user space didn’t come easily. WTC had to overcome stereotypes to determine how the lab would operate. Clearing these hurdles involved:

1. A Shift in Mindset. Requiring academic researchers to embrace a user-fee model meant asking them to adopt a standard of practice foreign to academic research facilities. This change in perception took time. For industry clients, it meant getting them to see value in a collaborative environment beyond mere production and development.

2. Management. It was important to hire engineers, technicians and managers who understood what it takes to operate in the style of a commercial enterprise.

3. Model of Operation. You can’t be everything to everybody, but you can serve multiple customers successfully if your business plan is solid and your clients understand the benefits to them. In our case, the rewards were clear: academic researchers and startup companies working side-by-side creates an exciting R&D environment.

WTC has seen many entrepreneurial companies achieve market leadership and university research projects evolve into commercial-ready technologies. These achievements are proof that with strong leadership, a clear mission and ongoing commitment, a public laboratory can be a center of excellence for research and development.


Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account. Comments won't automatically be posted to your social media accounts unless you select to share.