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Nation's High-Tech Think Tank : MCC Under Pressure to Turn R&D Into Products

November 02, 1986|DONNA K. H. WALTERS | Times Staff Writer

AUSTIN, Tex. — A massive new building hulks in the forest at the north end of this central Texas city, its top three stories jutting out like a furrowed brow over the entrance. An as-yet unfilled trough sidles up to the clay-brown structure, more suggestive of a moat than a pond.

Inside, beyond the locked doors that flank the security desk, an atrium reaches to the ceiling, its blank white walls dividing the 200,000-square-foot building lengthwise. Along either side of it, columns of computer-filled offices march down inner halls, progressively numbered but otherwise mute to the identity of their occupants or purpose.

This is the home of the Microelectronics & Computer Technology, or MCC as it calls itself in a cryptogram to the outside world. A $23.5-million fortress in the battle for technological superiority.

Bobby Ray Inman, the "superspy" who three years ago crafted the cloak of secrecy under which 21 technology companies--from Control Data to Lockheed--could pool their resources in the name of cooperative research and in the process equip America for the fight, is about to leave MCC. And while it is certain that the doors of MCC won't soon be flung wide to spill out technology secrets, Inman's departure signals a new, more open phase at MCC.

In recent months, MCC has begun to squirm under the glare of the outside world--from the budget-conscious companies that support it, from the community that held such high hopes for what MCC would bring to town with it and--though still an experiment itself--from the dozens of other newly formed research ventures that view MCC as a model.

Even as it responds to these inquiring glances with small doses of information about its early progress, MCC is facing its own internal pressures.

Although it has quieted in-house squabbles that threatened it during its formative months, received government sanction for its structure and gotten its research projects well under way, MCC still faces formidable hurdles: among them, handling new leadership, growth and a constantly modulating set of demands from its member companies.

But ultimately, MCC's value will not be measured against the expectations of the outside world, or even by the quality of its research. Rather, its ultimate success will depend on whether its member companies put to use the tools and technologies that MCC develops.

"Our technology needs to be used. An army does not conquer the world without deployment," said Palle Smidt, senior vice president at MCC.

Not the least among those who worry about whether MCC's shareholder companies can do that is Inman, a retired four-star admiral who even 10 years ago was preaching the gospel of technology leadership while he headed the National Security Agency and then was deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Inman, who announced in September that he'll be leaving MCC when his contract expires at the end of the year, said that when he joined MCC, his goals "were to get it clearly established, created and the research under way." Now is a good time to leave, he added, because "there are no problems on the table among the companies."

His choice of a new job is illustrative of his eagerness to get on with the business of technology. Once he leaves MCC, he'll be head of a new Texas-based venture, called Westmark, that will acquire technology companies. Inman believes that Westmark will give him the opportunity to do first-hand, and in shorter time, what MCC's member companies need to: turn technology into products.

21 Different Approaches

As for how MCC's members are facing that challenge, Inman said: "There are 21 shareholders, and I see 21 different approaches to technology transfer. In a few companies, they've put in place the mechanisms to pull the technology in. They're closely tracking it and put a suction on that pipeline. But with a very large number of others, if they are taking those actions, it's not apparent to me."

MCC's board of directors, comprised of a representative from each of its 21 member companies, said that in searching for Inman's successor, they will be looking for someone with a strong technical background--which Inman does not have--who can direct the transfer process.

But MCC can only do so much, say its executives and program directors, citing scientific equivalents of the old maxim "you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink."

The consortium has implemented several methods to accommodate the flow of the research into the member companies, including written reports, briefing sessions and liaison arrangements. If applicable, prototypes could be built and demonstrated.

There are few existing models of technology transfer in this country, including universities and government-sponsored research.

But either of those would be unworkable at MCC, because of its particular form as a consortium of competing companies, or especially in the case of government-sponsored research, of little encouragement.

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