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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS | THE BUSINESS BEAT

Rockwell Reinvents Itself With Commercial Enterprise

November 07, 2000|ROSEMARY CLANDOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THOUSAND OAKS — Nestled in a residential neighborhood here, Rockwell Science Center has been known since the early 1960s for its research-and-development involvement in space and national defense projects.

But the defense industry that kept California going for much of the Cold War has tapered off, and now the company is trying to turn ideas into commercial products.

"Rockwell International has gone through major changes," said Derek Cheung, vice president of research for Rockwell International and director of the Rockwell Science Center. "We used to be identified with B-1 bombers and the space shuttle. Those were the icons of the old Rockwell."

Milwaukee-based Rockwell International has facilities in 40 countries and employs 40,000 people around the world. The Science Center is one of its four business divisions. And although the Science Center still has many contracts with research-and-development agencies of the federal government, the contracts are no longer a major part of Rockwell International, which sold its defense and space businesses to Boeing Co. in 1996.

Now, the Science Center has added to its repertoire the commercialization of its technologies.

During decades of research-and-development work, the Science Center developed a variety of technologies, including industrial automation, electronic control and communications, but not all of them found a commercial niche, Cheung said.

"We have a broad range of technology, and only a relatively small portion . . . is used by Rockwell or their companies," Cheung said.

"As a result, we have lots of technologies developed in commercial or industrial research that are not used," he said. "Many . . . don't fit the business thrust, so they sit on the shelf."

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Now it's time, company officials believe, for them to sell their work.

"We developed little chips, called infrared sensors, used for defense applications, but we found those sensors are very valuable to professional astronomers," said Jerry Risto, spokesman for the Science Center. "If you're going to look out into space, millions and billions of light-years away, the best way to do that is in the infrared."

The technology is already in the Hubble Space Telescope and many ground-based telescopes, including that at the University of Hawaii, Risto said.

The Science Center's new strategy, developed within the last year, has it licensing some technology to other businesses and collecting royalties, Cheung said. Also, the company will keep some inventions and incubate a Rockwell-financed business unit.

"We keep advancing the performance of [technology]," Cheung said.

In addition, the Science Center will partner with others to set up fully independent companies. These are cases that require large investments.

"We have the technology and the people," Cheung said. "Someone else may provide the funding and make those independent companies, and we will get an equity position."

The Science Center plans to aggressively implement its strategy. The company, with 450 employees, has hired 70 since January, including four experts in commercial business development.

For Cheung, a native of China who earned his PhD in engineering at Stanford University, his leadership of the Science Center comes after 25 years with Rockwell International. He was appointed to his current position in 1999. Before that he served as vice president and chief scientist of the Science Center.

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Cheung thinks the center is poised to deliver on its potential, although he recognizes not everyone agrees.

"There may be some skepticism," Cheung said. "There are two different cultures--research and development, and product manufacturing. Research is highly flexible and creative, and product manufacturing is highly disciplined and efficient. So, if you don't do them well, you can ruin both."

But some say the Science Center is taking the right business steps, such as Rockwell customer Conexant Systems Inc., a communications electronics company in Newbury Park. K.C. Wang, director of advanced products and technologies there, said the Science Center will face new challenges with its commercialization plans.

"The Science Center is a very good place for developing technology," Wang said. "They have changed, and it's mostly moving in the right direction. I think they have to realize that doing research is very different from developing a product."

At Boeing's Rocketdyne in Canoga Park, John Halchack, director of the materials engineering department, said Rockwell has a history of quickly responding to organizational problems.

"There was some friction initially when they began their commercialization," Halchack said.

Also, Halchack said, there are some gray areas regarding funding for some technology that stemmed from when Rocketdyne and the Science Center were both part of Rockwell International from 1962 to 1996. Later, when the Science Center wanted to commercialize a product and Boeing wanted to keep the technology proprietary, "those lines were blurred."

"That's when you have to coordinate," Halchack said. "Initially, the lines of communication were not well-established in this area. Derek has been very responsive to our concerns, and we've worked out a better line of communications so we could resolve this before any problems occur."

Recently, the Science Center had groundbreaking ceremonies in Camarillo for a 67,000-square-foot research-and-development and manufacturing plant, which is due to be completed in August.

"Thousand Oaks is for research only," Cheung said. "So with the Camarillo facility, we're unchaining ourselves."

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