He majored in chemistry and physics at Austin, and then earned master’s degrees in the same subjects at MIT. Keith Nelson, an optics expert at MIT, was so impressed by Rogers’ prodigious early record that he took the unusual step of penning a letter, urging him to pursue a PhD. “He just had so many indicators that he could achieve terrific things in science,” Nelson says.
In his second or third year of graduate school, Rogers found ways to streamline Nelson’s methods. In one notable instance, he replaced a cobweb of intersecting laser beams and painstakingly tilted mirrors—used to study the damping of sound waves—with a single light-diffracting mask that achieved the same results with one beam in a fraction of the time.
Had anyone thought of that before? I asked Nelson. “I can tell you we should have realized that way earlier but the fact is we didn’t. And I don’t mean just us,” he said. “I mean the whole field.”
For his PhD, Rogers devised a technique for sizing up the properties of thin films by subjecting them to laser pulses. People in the semiconductor industry began paying attention even before he was out of graduate school. For quality control, factories need exacting measurements of a microchip’s ultrathin inside layers as they are deposited. The prevailing method—tapping the layers with a probe—was not just slow; it also risked breaking or dirtying the chip. Rogers’ laser approach offered a tantalizing solution.
In his final year at MIT, Rogers and a classmate recruited students from the school’s Sloan School of Management and wrote a 100-page business plan. Nelson reached out to a neighbor who was a venture capitalist, and before long the group had investors, a CEO and meetings in Silicon Valley.
The shift from classroom to boardroom was not always smooth. At a meeting at Tencor, a chip-testing company, Rogers projected transparency after transparency of equations and theory.
“Stop, this is too much,” a Tencor executive cut in. “Why don’t you tell me what you can measure and I’ll tell you whether we can use it.”
Rogers went through his list: stiffness, delamination, longitudinal sound velocity, thermal transfer, coefficient of expansion.
No, don’t care, no, no, the executive said. What about thickness? Can you do that?
Well, yes, Rogers said, though it was the one yardstick he hadn’t even cited in his business plan.