Economic Recycling Enlarges U-Md.'s Engineering School

U-Md.'s newest engineering building is named after Jeong H. Kim, a PhD graduate.
U-Md.'s newest engineering building is named after Jeong H. Kim, a PhD graduate. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Steven Pearlstein
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Enter the main gate at the University of Maryland at College Park, you pass the 50-year-old Glenn L. Martin building, named after the pioneering aeronautical engineer who founded what is now Lockheed Martin and who provided the original endowment for the university's school of engineering.

Among the first to study in the Martin building was a commuter student on scholarship named Jim Clark who went on to head Clark Enterprises, which includes one of the nation's biggest construction companies. After his initial $15 million donation in 1994, the university named the school after Clark. And just this year, he delivered an additional $30 million endowment check to be used exclusively for scholarships.

On Monday, a beaming Clark was sitting on the dais, between the governor and the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, as they dedicated the school's new Jeong H. Kim Engineering Building, a spectacular $63 million research complex designed to put Maryland on the map in all the hot new areas of engineering -- info, bio, micro and nano -- by breaking down the barriers between them.

Kim's is a remarkable story. A Korean who immigrated here as a teenager without his parents or a knowledge of English, he won a scholarship to Johns Hopkins and earned an engineering PhD from Maryland. In the 15 years since, Kim managed to spend seven years as an officer aboard a nuclear submarine, start a telecom equipment company, sell it to Lucent Technologies for $1 billion, rescue Lucent's optical-networking division and now head the storied Bell Laboratories. Kim donated $5 million toward the engineering building project, along with an equal amount for scholarships and other purposes.

In an economic sense, you might say that Martin begat Clark, who begat Kim. This is the virtuous cycle that characterizes all thriving technology clusters: Research universities produce graduates who start companies, strike it rich and recycle some of their winnings back to the university to attract even better faculty and students.

But this cycle has been slow to develop in Maryland. The state has not been willing to invest the kind of upfront money to jump-start it. And the Maryland technology community has been dominated either by large defense companies that -- while providing generous and steady support -- don't generally donate really large sums or by smaller companies whose owners haven't hit it big yet.

Moreover, because many of Maryland's tech companies have been reliant on government grants and contracts, they don't take as many risks as other tech clusters.

"The conservative nature of the business culture here is something that we are constantly fighting against," admits Nariman Farvardin, the engineering school's popular and energetic dean.

Now, however, Farvardin senses an impending change. There is finally, he says, a critical mass of commercially successful tech firms whose founders have connections to the school. With the help of Kim and others, he's getting more of them to join his campaign to bring Maryland into the top tier of engineering schools. The new building, he says, is a tangible expression of that ambition.

Farvardin mentions venture capitalist Thomas Scholl, who sold Telogy Networks, a leading maker of Internet telephone software in Germantown, to Texas Instruments for $435 million; alumnus Brian Hinman, whose started and sold several companies that make equipment for video and audio conferencing; and alumnus Robert Fischell, who invented a widely used stent now marketed by Johnson & Johnson. All three men now sit on the school's board of visitors.

But, as Kim noted in an interview, more than a few Maryland graduates have felt that the local business environment -- and the university's policies on the transfer of intellectual property -- were not "entrepreneurial friendly," and decided to take their talent elsewhere.

Of the fish that got away, the biggest is Sergey Brin, the Maryland undergraduate (and a son of College Park professors) who went out to Stanford for his graduate work and never came back. As a result, not only is the company he co-founded located in Silicon Valley rather than Beltsville, but it is Stanford, not Maryland, that gets the windfall from its Google shares.

But don't underestimate Jeong Kim or the engineering school at College Park. Although soft-spoken, Kim has the generosity, determination and the network of friendships on both sides of the Potomac to rally the tech community behind the region's leading research university.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached

© 2005 The Washington Post Company