That’s what I want, the executive said.
“That was a seminal moment in all our lives,” recalls Matthew Banet, the MIT classmate who co-founded the startup and is now chief technology officer for a medical software and device company. “We went back with our tails between our legs.”
Back in Cambridge, they spent months tinkering with the laser system until it did exactly what Tencor wanted: measure variations in thickness as minuscule as one-tenth of an angstrom—or one one-hundredth of a billionth of a meter.
The give and take between industry and inventor was revelatory. Rogers saw that “sometimes the technology push drives scientific understanding, rather than the other way around.” He and his colleagues had already published papers on the laser technique, but Tencor’s requirements forced them back to the drawing board “to understand a lot more about the optics and physics and acoustics and signal processing.
“It put all the scientific research into the context of something that could have value beyond publication in a scientific journal.”
Rogers’ laser startup, Active Impulse Systems, raised $3 million in venture capital and sold its first unit, the InSite 300, in 1997. In August 1998, three years after its founding, the business was acquired in whole by Phillips Electronics, for $29 million.
If Keith Nelson’s lab taught Rogers how to measure, George Whitesides’ lab at Harvard taught him how to build. Rogers went there in 1995, right after earning his PhD. Whitesides’ passion at the time was soft lithography, a technique for using a rubber stamp to print molecule-thick patterns of ink. Rogers soon saw its potential for inking circuits on curved surfaces, like fiber-optic cable. That idea—and the patents and papers that followed—won him a job offer from Bell Labs, AT&T’s legendary research arm, in northern New Jersey. Rogers’ wife, Lisa Dhar, a fellow physical chemist and MIT classmate he’d married in 1996, was already working there; they had been conducting a long-distance relationship.
“For me, it was like paradise,” he says of Bell Labs, which had pioneered the transistor, the laser and landmark programming languages like C. “I was drawn to that interface between science and technology.” But the telecom crash of 2001 led to massive layoffs at Bell Labs, and then came another bombshell: A young researcher in Rogers’ department had fabricated data for a set of major papers, a scandal that produced national headlines. Rogers decided to move on—to the University of Illinois, he says, because of its storied engineering department and deep resources for interdisciplinary research. (Also, a baby—their only child, John S.—was on the way, and his wife’s family was from Chicago.)
Before long, Rogers had assembled a research group of 25 postdocs, 15 graduate students and several dozen undergraduates. The group’s size enabled collaborations so diverse they might be called promiscuous. Over my three-day visit, Rogers had meetings or conference calls with a Lehigh University nanotubes expert; a University of Arizona cardiologist; a thermal-imaging specialist at the National Institutes of Health; a team of theoretical physicists who’d carpooled down from Northwestern University; and a fashion professor who’d come from the Art Institute of Chicago to talk about LED-bespangled apparel.