SEARCH UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES
June 10, 2021
June 11, 2021
Liquid Crystal Oral History Project
Department of History
Kent State University
Transcript produced by Sharp Copy Transcription
MATTHEW CRAWFORD: Okay. So my name is Matthew Crawford, and I'm a Historian of Science at Kent State University. I'm here conducting an Oral History Interview with Dr. Asad Khan, CEO of Kent Displays Incorporated in Kent, Ohio. Today is June 10th, 2021. Dr. Khan, thank you for agreeing to sit for this interview today.
ASAD KHAN: Thank you very much, Matt. I'm excited and looking forward to it.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, likewise. So we want to kind of start at the beginning here, and I just want to start, could you tell us when you were born and where you were born, and what your early childhood was like?
KHAN: Would love to. The year was 1971. I was born in Pakistan and grew up there through my high school career, and from there on ended up coming to the United States for undergraduate education, and stayed here. There were some brief periods all over Pakistan we moved. My father was in the Air Force, and my mother was actually in the Army as a physician, and we moved around quite a bit within Pakistan, and a few places outside of Pakistan as well, during—and until I was about 17 years old, when I came here to the US.
CRAWFORD: Wow. So what was life like in Pakistan? What do you remember? Obviously, you were moving around, but are there any things that stand out from that period?
KHAN: Yes, for sure, and then certainly, in hindsight now in contrast, it's such a fantastic ability to be able to compare and look at two very different cultures, but also different periods of time. I was there in the '70s and '80s, and of course, now here in the US in '90s onwards. And also a difference in cultures, difference in society in terms of education, in terms of what was available. I, of course, was very fortunate to be in a very privileged part of the society being part of the military in growing up and so that was unique. My father and mother's side, both came from very different backgrounds, from different parts of the country in the region, so that gave me more exposure to that. And my parents, both being highly educated, also gave me different perspectives and privileges in terms of the breadth and depth of everything around the world that was going on and as a young impressionable person growing up and learning those things, getting me ready for what was coming next.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. I wonder if you'd be willing to say a little bit about the different backgrounds of your parents.
KHAN: Sure, sure. Pakistan has had a relatively young life. The country was formed in 1947. Both my parents were born before the country was formed. My mother was born in what is now India and migrated to Pakistan at the time of partition. My father was born in the northwest of the country, rugged mountains and born in a tiny village in a large family. My mother came from a very well-educated family. Her father was an attorney. My father, on the flip side, came from a family that had not had as much in terms of resources and he actually was someone who was one of the first to get out of the village and explore the world and ended up getting into the Air Force and became and rose up in the ranks and was a fighter pilot. My mother became a physician, and then joined the Pakistan Army where she worked as a doctor. So my father fought in some wars in the Air Force and my mother was taking care of the wounded in those same wars as a physician, so really unique perspectives and pretty remarkable for me to be able to get exposed to those types of backgrounds and those families and so on.
CRAWFORD: Great. Do you have siblings?
KHAN: I had one sibling. He was an older brother, and he passed away a long time ago when we were teenagers. So that was a pretty remarkable part of our entire family to go through quite a bit of an illness and then a death in the family. So it was a significant event in my childhood.
CRAWFORD: Sure, sure, yeah. Now, given your trajectory into the Sciences, a career in Science as a child before going to college and so forth, did you take an interest in Science? Was there anything that seemed to be pushing you in that direction or—?
KHAN: Yes, absolutely. It was a transformational moment. When I started ninth grade, took the first Physics class and was really enamored by it and really excited, something a field and a subject that was answering questions in unique, interesting ways just about life that's going on around us. So I was fascinated by it, but right around the same time, as a young teenager, growing up on Air Force bases and my father was a fighter pilot in the Air Force, was all pretty much the only thing to do was to become a fighter pilot, and it was around the same time when the movie Top Gun was coming out as well. So Physics was fascinating and exciting, but being a pilot was higher priority, which is what I then wanted to do and really looking forward to it, but it turns out that my eyesight was not good enough. And so that came off the table relatively quickly. And so then, I continued to be fascinated by Physics. And then as I finished high school, the goal was to try to get to somewhere that I could get better education in Computer Science.
CRAWFORD: Right. I just wonder if you could say a little bit about what the Science education was like in your high school in—?
KHAN: In Pakistan? Yes, absolutely. It's pretty rigorous. And then now as I am raising kids of my own and in a high school system in this society and culture and in a different time as well, it does give me a unique perspective. It was pretty rigorous, quite a bit more than what was here, but in general, it was fascinating, so from Physics and Chemistry and Biology and Mathematics, as a kid, you were getting exposed to all of these disciplines in a relatively rigorous way.
We had to, at that time, had to sort of pick fields pretty quickly, sort of a track, so to speak. And so as you entered 11th grade, you had to pick whether you were going more in an Engineering track, more in a Pure Science track, more in a Arts or Law or Medicine, things like that. Not that you're learning those fields, but it was you were just picking those tracks that early on. So in 11th grade, I was much more into the Science and picked the Science track, not nearly as much as Business, as Marketing and Arts, and then these other fields.
CRAWFORD: So you're saying you picked the Pure Science track, not the Engineering track?
KHAN: Yeah, yeah, so that became a pretty significant sort of fork in the road and for better or for worse, the educational system there and at that time was forcing kids to pick that early, when as an 11th grader or a 15 or 16-year-old, you're not really capable of knowing exactly what you want to do.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. Well, it almost sounds like some of the educational systems in Europe, England, and some European countries that try to track students early on, earlier on than we do.
KHAN: For sure. A lot of the systems were modeled and derived from the British system anyways.
CRAWFORD: Right, yeah, yeah. So just maybe one more question before we move on to post high school. What was it about Pure Science that attracted you? I mean you said a little bit about this earlier, but I just wonder if you could say a little bit more about what drew you in.
KHAN: In reality, I'm not sure if I even really know. It's easy to go back and fill in some of the stories. So maybe it was just not that clear, but just as a young kid being excited about it. Now that I think about it, I think what it was just as a kid wanted to know how things work and how things functioned. And it's not that I was sitting there contemplating why's the apple always falling to the ground? It was more that getting exposed to Physics told me that that was a question that I should perhaps ponder. And so I think that that interactive thing is what was intriguing, as opposed to pure or Art or Language and other disciplines that might excite someone else.
For me, it was more fascinating to know, to understand, to get precise answers, to be able to know about functioning of things around us and to know about things that are in much more detail than I was fathoming. So all of this put together, I think the young mind was getting both challenged and stimulated and was responding saying, “Hey, I like this.” It's not to say that I was brilliant at it. It wasn't because it was just come easy. I was just interested in it and it seemed interesting.
CRAWFORD: Right, right, that makes sense. So after high school, you end up at the College of Wooster here in Ohio. And I'm just wondering you said earlier about thinking post high school looking for a school where you could continue the kind of Science education you were interested in, was the College of Wooster, was that your first choice? How did you end up at that particular institution?
KHAN: So back in the '80s, when I was looking pre-internet, not so easy to communicate, and things like that, writing letters to school to get information from them, and through that process was able to get to places like Wooster, and there were a few other universities and colleges that seemed intriguing. The thing that was the really the decision factor was not so much that it was Wooster, that it was to seek out a Pure Science education was better off to do in the West, in the US, perhaps than it was to stay in Pakistan which had very good medical schools, had good engineering schools, but Pure Sciences also were good, but I felt that the opportunities would be better here and the family thought that as well which was a difficult decision and an expensive one as well.
As far as this specific choice of Wooster, a series of events and coincidences, and knowing someone who knew about the school, the school did a heavy recruiting job of international students, of providing some aid, and being totally intrigued. People have often asked me how I found this place in the middle of cornfields in Ohio, and the answer is that I wasn't looking in the middle of cornfields in Ohio, but Wooster stands out pretty uniquely amongst small liberal arts schools here in the US, and so I wasn't coming to Ohio or to cornfields, but I was really coming to Wooster. And as far as I was concerned, it could have been anywhere. Honestly, geographically, I didn't really have a lot of awareness of exactly what it was I was expecting. I had landed here in August in 1989 having never been to the United States before in my life.
CRAWFORD: Wow, yeah. So you get here in 1989 to start your undergraduate career. Do you have a sense of what your goals were at that time in terms of your undergraduate studies and so forth?
KHAN: Yeah, so, no, Matt. I wish I had a great romantic answer to it, but unfortunately, as a 17-year-old, I now realize I was going through culture shock, and having left my family and 2,000 miles away in a new culture and a new place, but yet excited about opportunities. So I don't know if I really had a grand notion of what I would become or do or what life—what it is that I wanted to do. So I think it was one day at a time. I was very excited about being here in the US. I was very excited about opportunities to learn, but excited about so many other opportunities, which at that time were not so available for young kids and teenagers that was all of 17 that were available here. Even getting a job on campus and having access to faculty and stimulating conversations, there's just so many things, and it's like drinking out of a fire hose. Instantly, this is just there's almost too much while you're trying to figure out how the culture works, how the society works, and literally, all the way from driving on the other side of the road, right? And Wooster is a very small campus, but one of the main roads of town goes right through the campus. So to get from the dorm to the student center, you have to cross the road and it took a long time to condition myself to look the other way before crossing the road.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So what do you think were some of the main challenges in making that adjustment and how did you meet them?
KHAN: I don't know if in this interview, we have enough time to list all the challenges. There were lots of them. In retrospect, there are tons and tons of things that were happening, incredible resources, friends, and also peers that were there. It was, unfortunately, not so easy to communicate back home. Even by phone, it was difficult, so writing letters was it, but staying in touch with family was absolutely essential. My parents insisted on me going back very quickly for sort of a recharge, and so that became important as well, but on the flip side, my mother very clearly told me do in Rome as the Romans do, and then her insistence was, don't try to go somewhere else and then keep holding on to notions that you feel completely convinced are the right way to do, relax, open up, and do what people are doing. And that was, I think, was what was critical to my early success as a student worker, as a peer, and in relationships and friends, and society in general, but yeah, just challenges were everywhere, from food to nutrition to language to even the way of learning.
One of my professors at Wooster, in my early class, I remember gave a homework assignment. It was literally the first week, but a lot of the Physics I had had exposed to in 11th and 12th grade, so I was very comfortable with that. In Pakistan, some of the homework assignments weren't that important. There were the final exams or midterms that became the key grade determining ones. So I didn't do the homework assignment. I thought it was trivial, that I understood. And since I didn't turn it in, a couple days later, the professor asked me to come to his office and he asked me where the homework was? And I told him to his face, I didn't do it because it was easy enough. And then he had to explain to me that this is the part of your grade and you have to do it. And to me, that was a complete surprise and it took me aback. And so that's a small example of having to learn a new way of, in this particular case, grading, but there were so many other things around it. And I, as a young person, I know that I was—I didn't know at that time, I know now, that was going through a tremendous shock and surviving through that shock, eventually coming out of it, and then perhaps the word is thriving within that was a good turning point, but yeah, there were tons of little challenges that make up the entire challenge. There wasn't one critical thing that was overcome and it would be over.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. It was the whole experience.
CRAWFORD: So it sounds like the College of Wooster was recruiting international students. Your community at the school that you ended up building, did it include international students or did you connect with students here? And do you feel like the college did a good job of kind of supporting its international students in their transition, so to speak?
KHAN: I believe the college did a fantastic job, really great support structure, International Student Affairs, and lots of resources, so those were absolutely essential and very much needed. And the University, the college did a really good job. Back to the do in Rome as the Romans do, even choosing what dorm to live in, I had chosen a dorm that was Arts and Humanities and Sciences dorm and not necessarily one dorm was international students, I didn’t pick that. A lot of international students like me gravitate towards other international students, and that's because we are more comfortable with each other. We're going through the same shock. We're going through the same questions. And so there were natural friendships that were made very quickly, but particularly because I was living in a dorm that was not international students, I was exposed to a different part of the campus of student life that was not international-student-based and that became an important aspect of my forming within the college and within the first four years of my time here in this country that I was learning through tougher means by being exposed to that rather than being reliant on let's all gather together. I didn't exclude international students, but I certainly had tons of friends that were not international students. And so that was exciting and that was great and I'm very, very fortunate, and I feel very lucky that I did go down that route. And I think it formed me to a large extent.
CRAWFORD: Great. So I want to now kind of focus on your experience studying Science and before we turn to that, just curious to ask, sort of given what you were just saying about your experience with the homework assignment and the transition, in general, did you feel like your educational experience before you came to Wooster that you were prepared to do Science at the collegiate level? Were you advanced relative to other students, or do you have a sense of sort of where you might have fit in relative to the other students?
KHAN: Yes, I certainly did. I think my technical and scientific background was very strong in Pakistan and up through 12th grade and that education system was a little bit more advanced, more rigorous. And so it was relatively easy for me because I was exposed to lots of concepts. Well, it wasn't easy as this different style of education. So I was learning that. I was not learning nearly as much of the sciences. I was learning on how this new learning happens. So I was very lucky to have that advantage so that I can go deal with these other things. Where I was very weak were other subjects. Because Wooster is a liberal arts education, there were other non-science subjects that I had to take. I didn't know them very well, didn't know how to deal with them. So there, I truly struggled. I had to learn how to write, how to express myself, how to do research, how to look up stuff, and it's those kinds of things didn't come easy at all. A simple Physics problem in Introductory Physics was trivial, but go read this book chapter or go read this book and write a summary of it, that wasn't trivial at all.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So what would you characterize the kind of learning or research atmosphere in your classes at Wooster? What was the culture at the school?
KHAN: It was super exciting to get to a place where—I was always in high school filled with questions, particularly in the sciences. And it wasn't easy to approach teachers and it wasn't easy to ask questions. The teacher-student relationship back home is very different and a little bit more formal and intentionally more arm's length and stuff like that. So very quickly, I learned at Wooster that it wasn't this and the professors are wearing shorts and they're having a good time. And I'm observing other students interact with them and treating them as their equals. And so that quickly started to influence me. And so then, I started to get into that mode, and here, I was just fascinated by the fact I have a question, and I can just simply ask them. And they're answering and they're sometimes if they're unable to answer, point me in the right direction. So this entire aspect was really fantastic, the facilities, particularly in Science and laboratory stuff, and at that time in the late '80s, the computers were becoming more and more prevalent, and so having access to that, having access to all of these things was just really exciting and really fascinating for me to be able to put my hands on equipment in experiments and to be able to get to libraries that were filled with stuff that one needed to know. So it's not exactly answering your question, but these kind of things are memorable things for me, more than 30 years ago, right?
CRAWFORD: Right. So were there any particular professors that you became close with or were mentors to you or provided you with sort of memorable research experiences or experiences in Science?
KHAN: Oh, absolutely. Even up to this day, I was blessed with great professors and Professor Don Jacobs was the chair of the Department. He was truly influential, really something that many of us students aspired in Physics and were influenced and deeply appreciated his teaching style, but above all, out of many of the professors, Professor Shila Garg was another professor in Physics whom I really appreciated. Her background is from India as well, and so there was a natural connection, but I was drawn to her and she has a natural affinity for mentoring, for being there for students. So I'm sure, in her life, I was just one student, another student, but in my life, she was the pinnacle of my Physics career within Wooster. So I really appreciated her. And over the course of four years created a friendship and a much deeper relationship with her which went beyond Physics and learning about life in general. So it really was all the way to her family and so really was a truly, truly rewarding behavior for me to learn this.
And if we go back to that earlier question about relationships with teachers and professors, it was just really, to me, was rewarding and fascinating to be able to stay in touch, and, of course, even to this day today, we are very good friends and have stayed in touch, and I'm very fortunate for that. There are other notable professors that came into my life at Wooster. Wooster is just an amazing, amazing place with great professors and notable ones, and I feel like I should have prepared a list before this, but there was a Chemistry Professor, Virginia Pett from whom I took a Computer Science class or two and I was just really impressed with her, and she influenced me a lot from her Science and Computer Science, but a lot from her personality. And I had fantastic other experiences in Anthropology. I was really, really enamored by Anthropology, the subject, and the professors there. And then, I took a course in Afro-American folklore from Professor Josephine Wright and there was some connection with her that I will never forget and really influenced me in a massive way, so I really appreciated her. Again, in some of these professor's lives, they go through—they see so many students, so I appreciate the fact that to them, people like me are just another, I don't want to say, another serial number, but look, I appreciate that they have so many students and many, many students are brilliant. I was hardly the brilliant student, but they probably don't recognize or see it, but in me as a student, they were very influential, and much of what I have accomplished in my life, both in Science and in life in general, I think, is a lot to do with many of these professors that I've recalled.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. And it sounds like, because you're at a small liberal arts college, it really created the conditions for those kind of connections in addition to whatever qualities of them as individuals.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. So thinking about your scientific career as an undergraduate, you mentioned this, the Chair of the Department, Don Jacobs, this mentor, Shila Garg, did you do research in Physics as an undergraduate? Did you do a thesis or any significant research experiences?
KHAN: Yes, lots of them. Wooster is an amazing place to encourage and enable undergraduate students to do lots and lots of research and even get publications in peer-reviewed journals at such an early age. And so I was able to do it, I was very fortunate. Some of the things you have to apply for and get some grant funding and the professors were really good in supporting, so I did lots of research work with Shila Garg. She was the Liquid Crystal expert within the Department of Physics and because I did more research work with her than anyone else, I got exposed to liquid crystals that early on. And then every student in Wooster ends up doing an independent study, which is a year-long research project in your senior year. And so that I also did with Shila Garg and another professor and so was really fortunate. The summer research projects were also really exciting. I did lots of summer work in other areas in foodservice and so on and so forth, but the research projects in the summers were truly rewarding and really were experiential and extremely beneficial for me to move forward and to be able to be a good experimentalist.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So would you say that—were those research experiences built into the curriculum at Wooster, or were you really taking advantage of a lot of opportunities that were being offered? In other words, were other students essentially doing the same thing? And it sounds like the independent study was part of the curriculum, but were you really sort of embracing it fully, so to speak?
KHAN: Absolutely. So the independent study is something that everyone does. Not everyone takes advantage of all the other research experiences and some of them are also competitive, so not everyone was doing it. I truly was. Was looking forward to it. I spent every summer at Wooster. I didn't leave campus in order to make use of such experiences, so worked hard and fought for every opportunity to try to go seek out opportunities with professors, particularly with Professor Garg. And so in the end, that worked out really well and I'm very, very glad I did that, but no, I had peers and friends and colleagues that were not or they would go back home. I was coming back home to Pakistan in the short winter holiday. And so that was my time every year to come back and reconnect with both friends and family.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So what was it that drew you to research?
KHAN: It's a good question. The part of research that I feel that's fascinated me the most particularly at a younger age was experimentation. So I wasn't as keen on theoretical work as I was experimental work. And in Physics, you can do both, you can do theory or you can do experiments. Professor Garg was an experimentalist, and I was just twiddling with stuff, with equipment trying to make things work. For me, it was just truly rewarding and a little bit was good at it, so that kind of worked out.
But really to be able to answer what drew me to research, I'm not sure. But if I tried to capture at least some essence of the answer to that question, perhaps is that it's an opportunity to be able to solve a problem in its entirety, on your own, doing something, or even part of a team, but being able to say, this is the sole problem you're supposed to go figure out and solve, so that really was thrilling, highly rewarding, and I was reasonably good at it, so that became really exciting. So I think that that part was good. I didn't as I was maturing in Wooster and getting exposed to other fields and liberal arts, I was getting more comfortable writing and there was a lot of writing at Wooster. And so the writing part, as part of the experiment, you must also then write it down and be able to articulate what you have found and what you have done, and so that part also was coming easier, and I was also more interested in it. So writing something like a 100-page dissertation in your senior year was okay, was actually exciting.
CRAWFORD: And is that what you did? You wrote a 100 page—?
KHAN: I don't remember the exact page count, but these independent study thesis are... tend to be substantial, not necessarily so much to do with the page count, the fact that it's independent study, your advisor is guiding you, and you are doing this work, researching it, doing the experiment, writing it, and drawing conclusions and so on and so forth. So it really was to this day, I feel that it's a remarkable, remarkable experience. That's an integral part of Wooster.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. And what was the topic of your independent study?
KHAN: My independent study actually turns out was not in Liquid Crystals. I did a lot of my summer and other doing the school year research work with Professor Garg in liquid crystals, but my independent study was actually looking at chaotic systems with lasers, which was a little bit of Chaos Theory, but also lasers, so it was pretty exciting.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. And if memory serves a little bit correctly, that would have been around the time that Chaos Theory was kind of getting bigger, right?
KHAN: It certainly was getting a lot of attention, and we had a relatively newer professor in the department had come, and he was a very big expert at chaotic phenomena. So that's why it was even more exciting than at that time to be able to have an opportunity to work with him.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. And I don't know if you mind saying a little bit more about what were you looking at about chaotic systems with relation to lasers?
KHAN: So within a diode laser, there is a cavity, that's where the lasing happens and looking at how that lasing happens and if some perturbation, if something can be injected in that, how it would lead to chaos or not. Is that happening? Is there any detectable chaotic phenomenon within that cavity as the lasing is happening? So it's an optical experiment. So you have to try to look at the laser output and detect it and measure at a high sensitivity in a very, very fast way. So there were some experimental challenges to it. You're testing my memory and my skills from a long time ago.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. So at what point did you think about pursuing graduate work or because you go on to do your Master's in Physics at Kent State which you finish in '95, so I presume you went pretty much right into it after undergraduate?
KHAN: Yes. So as the senior year was progressing, all the seniors have to figure out what is it that you want to do next? And I had become very, very interested in both in Physics and also Liquid Crystals. And Professor Garg had lots of interactions. We had done some research work together with professors here at Kent State University. And so there was a natural inclination, was interested in more graduate work, just more learning. And Professor Garg was very influential in helping me and both understand and helping the Kent State Physics, understand the type of student I was. And so I was lucky enough to get into the graduate program at Kent State. At that time, there were two tracks at Kent State Physics and Condensed Matter Physics which is where Liquid Crystals was, and then also in Nuclear Physics.
And so I was certainly interested in the Condensed Matter part, connected with the Physics department was this Liquid Crystal Institute. And so there was a natural overlap and exposure to both Liquid Crystal Physics, Liquid Crystal Science, and being with the very professors that have been working in this field for their careers. So it was very exciting for me to leave the Physics research that I was doing with Professor Garg, come to graduate school, and be in this rich environment filled with people doing incredible work in Liquid Crystals. So I got to touch the tip of the iceberg in Wooster and then I was in the middle of the iceberg at Kent State. But I was intrigued in Nuclear Physics as well. So did a lot of coursework in Nuclear Physics also to try to understand, but to be honest, the coursework at Kent State in Physics was very challenging for me. It was a lot of work, and there was some level of burning out as well. So I think the decision was at that time to try to see if maybe a Master's degree is good enough, and perhaps one should go into some field, either get a job or—so I looked at jobs in industry and even jobs in teaching as I was wrapping up this master's degree. And that's when I ended up getting my first job.
CRAWFORD: Okay. Okay. So just a small point of clarification. The Master's program at Kent State was the only one you applied to, or did you apply to others or you knew you wanted to come to Kent State and do Physics here?
KHAN: Yes, that was 100% sure I wanted to come to Kent State. I think, if memory serves me right, I'm sure I applied to a few other programs. And I don't recall getting in and graduate stipends become very important for affordability and to be able to because my family wasn't able to support. So Kent State both because of the graduate stipend, but also because of Liquid Crystals became the only choice. It was essentially, this was a no-brainer.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. I mean, I don't—yeah, I mean, it really sounds like you were focused on Kent State and it seems like a good choice. Were there any other options for graduate study of Liquid Crystals at that time?
KHAN: There were and still remain, and now that the field has grown so much that there are research groups in different places, both in the country and all over the world as well, and certainly has matured a lot. At that time and even today, the Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State University was and is the largest Institute devoted to Liquid Crystal Science. And so it was literally the epicenter of Liquid Crystal Research in the world. So it really was very, very fortunate and I feel very lucky to have been able to come to Kent State, because that was my interest. I think were there—it's quite possible that if I wasn't able to get into the Kent State program that I would have returned back home, because perhaps there wasn't as much interest to do something else.
CRAWFORD: Right. Right. Okay. So what was your experience doing the Master's degree at Kent State? Was it—I mean, obviously, it wasn't the kind of culture shock as coming to Wooster, but still, it's a different institution, different set of professors, maybe a different style of doing Science perhaps or Science education. Was there any adjustment there, or did it seem pretty seamless?
KHAN: No, quite the opposite. Everything you touched on, Matt, is what was going on. So there was a culture shock to come to a university with 30-some thousand students from the university with 1,600 students. So suddenly, that was a big shock. And both in terms of campus, in terms of campus life and community, and suddenly you go from this protected bubble of living on campus and a college of 1,600 students to now here you go, do whatever you want, and this big university, so that was certainly very different. It was felt a little bit closer to getting engaged into real life in terms of getting apartments and things like that. And then, the education part was very different.
The graduate Physics is a pretty different animal, and it's a lot tougher. And now, this is now a set of students. There were very few of us in our graduate classes, somewhere between 5 to 5, but less than 10 students in these classes, that they're all coming from incredibly strong backgrounds in Physics and Mathematics. And so I'm sitting with them and competing with them. And many of them had not had the type of research work that I had had, but in terms of taking coursework in Quantum Mechanics, or Classical Mechanics, or other disciplines that we have to take the coursework in, the rigorous background and training of those students was really good. A lot of international students as well that had had really strong backgrounds. So it was very tough for me. Then, the professors are tougher as well, right? The expectation is that you're doing a lot of this work on your own. So the teaching style, the learning styles were different, and so it was, I'd have to be honest, was really was a struggle from a campus culture to a sort of academic and learning style to a University different to community life as well. The upside was, there was more independence. The upside was that there was more focus on Science and Physics. The upside was that we all were suffering together. And so it forced you to work together as teams with other students and made lifelong friends that still have in those experiences.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. So I want to ask you a little bit more about that because you previously mentioned something about a kind of competitive environment among the students in the program, but also a sense of camaraderie. I wonder if you could just say a little bit more about kind of the culture among the students. As students did you feel like you were competing with others or encouraged to work together?
KHAN: No, it's absolutely encouraged to work together, in fact, a necessity to work together because it's very hard to do this solo, to get some support, some help in solving problems, in learning, in doing assignments and problems and projects. Wasn't as much competitive part, but it's different people were coming there from different backgrounds. And so it was a very different experience for some of the students coming from overseas that had literally had been teaching the class in a university environment that they were now taking. So also, those ended up—sometimes, it was a little bit demoralizing, but by and large, everyone was fantastic, a great attitude for everyone. So we really all suffered and struggled together and made friendships in the wee hours of the night as we were trying to figure out problems and solving some of these things or studying for exams.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. So in terms of research work, were you—what kind of research were you doing?
KHAN: So the much of my Master's career was more in coursework and everything. And so then as the coursework was wrapping up, I started connecting with the professor Phil Bos for my Master's thesis project. And Phil is a very well-known name in the Liquid Crystal display world. And so I was very, very fortunate to have a great partnership with Phil to do my Master's thesis project in Liquid Crystals.
CRAWFORD: And what was the topic of the thesis?
KHAN: Matt, you're always challenging me with this Science, but my Master's project was to do with trying to understand if alignment layers are doing a good job for aligning the liquid crystals inside display, such as your laptop screen, and so on and so forth. And can we come up with a good way to measure the quality of that alignment? And it was by measuring the birefringence, the tiny, tiny birefringence that would exist in an rubbed alignment layer and coming up with an experimental way to do it very accurately and rapidly. It was really an exciting project from a display industry perspective. It was more exciting because professor Phil Bos had come from industry. And so he had lots of industrial experience, this is what people really need. So he is now the academic professor, but he's got a lot of links from the industrial world. And that was really an exciting thing to be able to sit with him as a young student and learn and hear that what you were doing, literally, the industry is asking for.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. Yeah. I just want to pick up on one thing you were saying about your research. You used this term, birefringence.
CRAWFORD: Okay. I wonder if you could just spell that [out]?
KHAN: Sure, sure. Birefringence is something that happens in media where the light traveling inside that medium can have a different speed in one direction versus another direction. Some of the plastic materials have birefringence? Turns out liquid crystals have birefringence. That means that light going in one direction will travel at a slightly different speed than in its orthogonal direction. And so that factor is called the Index of Refraction. So it ends up having two different indices of refraction. And the difference between the two is what's called the birefringence. So a piece of glass, clear piece of glass has no birefringence because it has only one index of refraction. No matter which direction the light goes, it will travel at the same speed, but a piece of plastic such as that in your water bottle, polyester has quite a bit of birefringence. So it depends on which direction the light goes, it will behave and interact with the material slightly differently, therefore making it a bit slower in one direction.
CRAWFORD: And so is that phenomena something—that was the phenomena the industry was looking to understand better?
KHAN: That ended up being the tool, that ended up being the measurement on this. There's a tiny, tiny alignment layer, a tiny, very thin film that's inside liquid crystal display on both sides of the glass surface. And that very tiny film also has a tiny amount of birefringence. And so if you can measure that birefringence of that film, you can know if that film is doing a good job or not in doing the aligning of the liquid crystals. So the birefringence is not necessarily of interest. It's just more being used as a measurement to know whether the alignment layer is good or not.
CRAWFORD: Okay, okay. So when you talked about your experience as an undergraduate in Physics, you talked about the sort of classic distinction in Physics between Theoretical and Experimental. Was there the same distinction in your Master's program, or was it really a primarily experimental program?
KHAN: Sure. So you can—again, in Physics, you can do either one. You can do nuclear, or you can do Theoretical Physics or Experimental and do it in Liquid Crystals, some theory work, there were professors that were theorists, or you can also do it in Particle Physics. And then, so my work and focus and interest remained in Experimental Physics. And so that way, Phil Bos is an experimentalist and he was doing good work, and I was very fortunate to be able to get paired up with him, for him to like what I was doing, and so we did that project as an experiment.
CRAWFORD: And then also wanted to ask about, you mentioned that Phil Bos came from this background in the industry. What was your sense, or to the extent that you had a sense, as a master's student and a student of Dr. Bos of the Liquid Crystals interest in producing work that had application. Was that a big part of the culture of the Institute? Was it something new at the time? Was it perhaps celebrated or looked down upon? Do you have a sense of what it was like at the time that you were there?
KHAN: No, absolutely. It was an amazing time in the Liquid Crystal Display industry. The industry was rapidly growing and rapidly maturing. And the Liquid Crystal Institute was at the center of it. And there was a big outcome, Science Center and National Science Foundation Center at Kent State University. And so a tremendous amount of work. It was connecting with industry, and of course, other academic institutions as well, the industry maturing and rapidly. In fact, that's where I started to become more aware of and interested in going into industry. This seemed like, wow, you are getting trained for what other display companies are going to be looking for. So it became rapidly evident to me that would be a great place to go apply, certainly all over the world, but even here in the US in the early to mid-'90s. Even just in the Kent area, there were lots of Liquid Crystal Display companies, small and big, that were doing much of the work, sometimes research, sometimes manufacturing, sometimes design and engineering, and so on and so forth. So it was a really good exposure. Phil Bos was, of course, very well known in the industry. So he was one step away from being able to provide guidance and help and nurturing into what to do and which direction to go.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. What about—so it sounds like the Institute was encouraging you to be cognizant of industry and so forth. What about the other elements of a career in Science, publication, grantsmanship, things like that? Was that part of your experience as well?
KHAN: At Kent State, not nearly as much. Phil and I wrote some publications. So that was pretty good and really fortunate that I wasn't so much involved in grant writing. And, of course, there was a lot of grant work being done, but just not at that time, I wasn't so much involved, but we did a little bit of publication work, and that was really fantastic. I was really fortunate. There were lots of industry conferences. So not necessarily peer-reviewed journals, but technical conferences where information was being disseminated rapidly by research groups and students and professors, both to other academic people, but also industry. So there was just an amazing mixture of academic and industrial interests coming together at many of these technical conferences, which really were happening all over the world, including the US.
CRAWFORD: So did you get through attend those conferences as a student?
KHAN: Yes, so some of them and the Liquid Crystal Institute was such a hub of the display industry and the Liquid Crystal academic world that some of them were even being hosted by Kent State at Kent State University or Case Western Reserve University or University of Akron. So this trifecta was very, very active and prolific in this field.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. Did these conferences, were they regular, annual conferences, or were they kind of one-off things? I mean, are there any in particular that you recall? Did they have names or-?
KHAN: Many of them have names that I remember and were still part of my technical background and stuff, Society for Information Displays is one, The ALCOM Center (1) hosted many things at that time as well. So that was very exciting to be able to—so much work being done by case and University of Akron and Kent State University that it was, I mean, you just don't have to leave your backyard to be exposed to groundbreaking, world-known researchers and research work. So there was lots of seminars and symposia and exposure just within the ALCOM Center.
CRAWFORD: So would you say that, at that time, the real core of the scientific and intellectual work of liquid crystals was happening in industry conferences, as opposed to maybe purely academic ones, if that distinction can be made, or—?
KHAN: No, I don't think so. I think the conferences such as the International Liquid Crystal Conference, ILCC, which is much more a purely an academic conference, Gordon Research Conference and others, like these, there was a tremendous amount of academic work in really strong groups overseas in Hong Kong, in Russia, in China, in Taiwan, in Japan, in Colorado, and Florida. So lots and lots of different areas in different parts of the academic community always coming together, so. And again, the academic world was growing and learning more and more about this phase of matter, but the interest in the industry was growing very rapidly as well. So it was a great symbiotic relationship between both academic and industry. Not to say that academics were only doing stuff that industry needed, but at the same time, it really helps. It was just in parallel working really well.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. Yeah, I think it sounds like as you said, a kind of symbiotic relationship. There wasn't a wall between academia and the industry world. Just one more question about your Master's experience. So obviously, it sounds like you worked pretty closely with Dr. Bos. Were there any other faculty that were mentors to you at that time, or did the program or the way your career sort of developed in the Master's program, did it sort of encourage you to track with one faculty member mostly, or-?
KHAN: No, absolutely. I had had just fantastic experiences and coursework, mainly with many other faculty and notable names that I really became affectionate with, that provided some mentoring, Makis Petratos was one and Dave Allender was another one, they were super awesome in helping. Mike Lee was very influential as well. There were also other people that that were at the Liquid Crystal Institute from supporting, from engineering, both Doug Bryant at the display facility, and others that were really helpful. Dave Johnson, of course, we had worked with—both Shila Garg and I had worked with him and from Wooster. So now I got to work literally in his lab as well. Yeah.
CRAWFORD: I think maybe we should—maybe just take a quick break just to kind of pause and we can resume with this discussion. Okay, so we're back from our break. So we ended talking about your experience as a Master's student. You finished your Master's degree at Kent State in 1995. What happens after the Master's?
KHAN: Well, it's an interesting story, Matt, and as you've been asking me about what is it that you wanted to do, as I was working with Professor Phil Bos on my dissertation and wrapping it up, I didn't have a very clear vision of where I was going. I was focused in the moment enjoying the research work. Thought it was going for quite a while. And Phil came to me in the summer of '95 and declared to me that I should wrap up my project in a couple of months. He thinks it's in good shape, and the funding is going to end by the end of the summer. That sent me in a panic because that was a forcing function to say, I have to figure out what to do. We've always said, the good professors are forcing their students out. Go get out in the real world. Don't become complacent. So Phil provided me with a forcing function.
And so I hadn't written the dissertation, but now I furiously started looking for jobs, and both in industry in Liquid Crystals, but also, I've always, always been very intrigued about teaching. It's been something I'm fascinated about. And so I was also looking for teaching jobs, perhaps, and perhaps in a private high school, things like that. So I started, back in the '90s, you'd print your resume and put it in the mail. That's what you did. And I started doing that. And someone told me that—I think it was actually Phil that said, You should go talk to the director of the Institute, Professor Bill Doane. And who at that time, for me, as a young student was beyond the pedestal. So you only heard about him, you only knew about him, he was beyond celebrity status. So to go talk to him seemed like an unfathomable thing to be able to do.
But I mustered up the courage and went to his administrative manager, Elaine, and requested a meeting and who then set up a meeting and then I went to see Bill and going through Elaine was almost more petrifying than going to see Bill Doane. And so he was, of course, a remarkable individual and my first introduction to him at that time. And he said he'll definitely provide me with a list of companies that he thinks are great in the area. And he happened to tell me that there's this little company at that time was called, Kent Display Systems that I should send my resume to them as well. It's a great little company. That's all he said. And he said, Elaine can help you with that.
So that was my foray into sending out some resumes, and towards the end of the summer, lo and behold, I got a couple of job interviews, which was unfathomable to me. I didn't think anyone was that interested in my skill set and a bunch of research work and some coursework, but it turned out that a couple of the organizations were, and one of them was this little company in Kent, called Kent Display Systems. So in August, I came to the organization to interview and had a good little interview, had very little interviewing skills, was just coming here to tell them what I'm about. And it was a company of a handful of people at that time. And they were intrigued enough to make me an offer at the end of August, which I ended up taking immediately because I thought it was unbelievable that someone would actually want to hire me as an employee. So thus began my career here at Kent Displays.
And now I had the burden of starting my job in September of '95 and trying to write up a dissertation and wrap it up and defend it so that I can graduate in December of '95, which the company made a prerequisite for my employment that I must finish up this degree. So it really was. And of course, now we know, Professor Bill Doane was one of the co-founders of the company. So he had no other interest. I suspect he doesn't recall that meeting with the graduate student at that time. For me, it was a beyond petrifying meeting, but very enlightening. And I'm glad he pointed me to this because it became a lifelong mission for me, so.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So just a couple of questions before we start talking about your starting here at Kent Display or Kent Display Systems as it was known at the time. So it sounds like your advisor, Dr. Bos, kind of, like you said, it was a forcing factor, right, kind of sprung this on you. And it sounds like you, at the time, hadn't really thought about what the next step was. Were you considering research? Did you have any sense of your trajectory, or were you considering going on directly into a Ph.D.? Or had you always—had you been thinking maybe industry, or were you really just so wrapped up in the moment?
KHAN: I really was wrapped up in the moment. Just hadn't had that much time to think about. I had enjoyed the research work. I had been burned—sort of burnt out from a lot of the coursework, did okay, but I was really enjoying the research, I was enjoying my time with Phil Bos, and so I think I was in the moment and perhaps a little bit naively so, not still be worried about it. The luxury of being 22 or 23 years old is you get to enjoy life and not worry about too many details. And again, that forcing function really forced me to think, and at that time, it really struck me that you've got to have a plan, you've got to be able to do something. I wasn't so interested in much more academics at that time.
So the next level of grad—I thought that that was the end of the line in terms of academic training. Let's go get a job and let's get on with life. So that really became the goal. It was after six years of Physics and Liquid Crystals, and so it was a combination of that. And it was definitely was the right decision at that time. I'm glad that that's what I did, but I was so fortunate to be surrounded by people like Bill Doane and Elaine and Phil Bos and Deng-Ke Yang, and professors that supported what you were trying to do. And again, also fortunate that industry was where it was, and it was thriving and was growing. And so companies even in this area were looking for talent in Liquid Crystals and Science and Engineering Research work. So I was fascinated with research from my days at Wooster. And so the position at Kent Displays was a research position, a Research Engineer Technician, and so that's what really excited me about it. But to be honest, it was bird in hand. It was an offer for an employment, and I was beyond thrilled to be able to get the confidence of an organization and my abilities. So it really was really exciting.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. And I'm curious about this interaction with the director, Director Doane. You said he was beyond the celebrity. Almost sounds like he was kind of the Wizard of Oz, although I don't think that's the right metaphor because he was just a man behind the curtain and I think it sounds like there was much more substance to Dr. Doane, of course. But I wonder if you could just say a little bit more about why you reacted in that way. I mean, why were you sort of petrified? Was it a reputation thing or just kind of he's the Director of the Institute?
KHAN: Yeah, I think it's the position, the title, the stature, and that celebrity level. There was no reputation. I think it was just the fact that that he was admired, and he was revered by industry, by academia, and by the university. And so that stature brought with it the influence and the power of the office and the title as well as the individual. Put all these things together, and not to mention that I was a young graduate student that didn't know half the people in the entire Institute. I was adjacent in the Department of Physics. So I was a little bit decoupled as well from the Liquid Crystal Institute. So I think it was natural for someone like me to be a little bit hesitant or reluctant and be a little worried.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. Had you—so you hadn't really had interactions with Dr. Doane? I mean, was he—he wasn't part of the grad students experience really?
KHAN: He wasn't, at least not at my level. Not at the level. He had his own students, and he had a big research group and his postdoctoral fellows, but me working with Phil Bos in a Master's project relatively new was not—I had not been exposed to him. Of course, everyone knew about him. You had seen him from a distance and always, so, but that day and that meeting in his office was my first official and real chance to meet him.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah, Well, and it sounds like, like you said, the LCI sounds like it was a large organization. And so you were actually in the Physics department. Is that like—when you said you were kind of outside, I mean, was the Physics department physically separated from the LCI or—?
KHAN: Yes. So the Physics department building was separate from the Liquid Crystal Institute building and the Chemistry building. So the Chemistry and Physics Liquid Crystal Institute was a little bit in between at that time. And since then, it has now moved to a completely different building that's a short walk away. At that time, it was connected by hallways, but still physically separated. I don't recall, but the faculty and the academic structure, the faculty had positions in either side. So Phil Bos, technically, wasn't in the Chemical Physics Interdisciplinary program, and in the Liquid Crystal Institute, not so much in the Department of Physics.
CRAWFORD: I see. I see. But it does sound like there was enough of an interaction between those three units, Chemistry, Physics, and Liquid Crystal Institute that you as a student could interact with the Institute and its faculty and—
KHAN: Absolutely. Besides the physical distance, the connection, the camaraderie, the interactions were seamless. A lot of us knew each other. And different laboratories of different professors were in one building or another. So that was really fantastic, an amazing opportunity to be able to work with and interact with so many different people with joint symposia and talks by academic and industry leaders to come and see—and to come and talk to us. And so it really was, really was a fantastic environment. Of course, in the Department of Physics was this entire Nuclear Physics side. So I was exposed to that as well and all the symposia that were connected with that. And so for me, I was getting exposure from both sides, the Condensed Matter Physics and Liquid Crystals, but also the Nuclear Physics.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, okay, great. So you get this position as research engineer at Kent Displays, and we're now going through another transition, right? You're moving from academia to working for a company. What was that transition like? Was it another cultural adjustment, or was there some continuity because you're still in Kent and obviously, there's some connections between Kent Displays and the LCI?
KHAN: Yeah, yeah, it's a great question. So let me see if I can provide all the backdrop. So in 1989 moving 10,000 miles away, in 1993 moving 50 miles away, and then in 1995, moving five miles away, I think you're right, it's a good capture of the transitions were getting smaller, perhaps. The company was very small. So that was a great, great thing for an individual like me. It was a great fit. I don't know if I would have thrived in a very large organization at that time in my career. So that part was fantastic, but of course, an industry and company environment is very different than academics. So a Liberal Arts education versus a large university education versus now quickly in an academic environment, I mean, an industrial environment. But the great part there was that helped me and why I also thrived was that it was purely a research position. So it was like doing one of that those research projects, whether it was independent study at Wooster, or my Master thesis, or many of those summer and semester research work with Professor Gard. So it felt like now I was just being paid to do the same type of stuff in a relatively new field, which I have learned about a little bit. And so I think that the transition was very good. The company was small. And so it wasn't that big of transition in terms of the number of people. And then I was very blessed with having great mentors and supervisors here at Kent Displays at that early stage that were amazing influences in my early career.
CRAWFORD: So as a research engineer working on research for this company now, were you part of a team? Were you doing your own independent research projects? Were you assisting with other projects? What was the nature of that research that you were—?
KHAN: That's a great question. It was pretty much everything is a team but the entire company was very small, all of 8 or 10 of us, total. So there weren't that many teams. There were lots of—there were 8 to 10 teams of one, so but it was one shared mission. And so I think that all in all, it was really fantastic to be able to work with, at that time, was Dr. Mike Stefanov and Clive Catchpole, and Dr. Minhua Lu and very soon, Dr. Xiao-Yang Huang also came on board, who since then we've become best friends as well. So there were just really, really great, sharp individuals from whom I was able to learn a corporate environment. I was able to also get influenced in my technical work, but also contribute my own talents towards the common mission. So all those things were coming together very quickly and a really, really good fortune for me to have those people and this type of environment that early in my career.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. And being so close to Liquid Crystal Institute, I know the company was small, were there other people who had been graduate students or postdocs or something at the LCI? Was that kind of a feeder for Kent Displays, or—?
KHAN: Oh, absolutely. So Dr. Wong, who came here also came from the Liquid Crystal Institute, he happened to be Professor Bill Doane and Professor Deng-Ke Yang's student, who just was finishing up his doctoral work. Kent Displays also had joint research programs with the Liquid Crystal Institute. And so that became also a forcing function to work with many of the faculty and postdoctoral fellows and engineers and technologists at the Liquid Crystal Institute. And then there was—there was a interesting juncture in my development as a professional to go from, in fact, the months from September '95 to December '95, I still was a graduate student, but I was also a professional here at the company, working with the same professors as a peer, who were just a few months ago, were my professor. So it was really cool, interesting, and fun transition to work very closely with some of the professors and engineers and postdoctoral fellows at the Liquid Crystal Institute in my capacity as a young research engineer here at Kent Displays.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So you said that Kent displays and the Liquid Crystal Institute had joint research programs. I wonder if you could just say a little bit more about what that meant?
KHAN: They were government-funded programs. There were ALCOM programs from NSF and DARPA programs that were looking at display science and reflective displays, and then ultimately flexible displays. So all that that funding was creating programs where either the university was a subcontractor or the company was a subcontractor to the University grants and many of those things overlapping. So some of the bigger ones at that time, in the mid to late '90s, were DARPA programs where we were all working together to solve some of the key issues in bistable reflective cholesteric displays.
CRAWFORD: So, and I'm just asking this to kind of get a handle on this relationship. Would it be fair to say that Kent Displays was kind of an extension of the Liquid Crystal Institute, or is that downplaying the individuality of the company?
KHAN: It's tough to answer. It can kind of go both ways. Of course, the company was spun out of Kent State with this technology that came out of Kent State. If I put my Kent Displays hat on, the company was meant to commercialize this technology, but it had really been brought up to sort of a test cell. And so lots of sort of scale up and commercialization issues existed. If I put on my Kent State and Liquid Crystal Institute hat, it was a remarkable technology with incredible potential that was compared to many other display technologies and was relatively easier to manufacture. So from that sense, it was a goldmine that the company should be able to leverage.
It did this, but ultimately, it became a team. Ultimately, it became—there was often seamlessness between company and the Liquid Crystal Institute, both sides having their own missions, their academic mission of sure, Liquid Crystal Institute, and the corporate missions of Kent Displays. Yeah, that was very clear that they were different, but some of the work was very synergistic. And we had some of the problems that the company had to solve were so fundamental that you needed the help of an academic partner. But some of the problems were so crucial to commercialization that it would have been difficult for the academic partner to sit up and say, we should solve this. So it really became a symbiotic partnership between the company and the university. And the joint funding that was there was essential and became really, really enabling and helped grow this bistable reflective display science by leaps and bounds by putting all these researchers together.
CRAWFORD: Okay. So just following up on that briefly, I wonder if you could say something about the problems that the company could address that maybe the academic Institute had—it was, let's say, not quite prepared, or ill-suited to addressing and vice-versa? What were the kinds of things that the LCI was able to do that the company wasn't able to do?
KHAN: Okay. So one has to understand a little bit of the model of the company, and so it would be called a fabless manufacturing company. So we did not have a massive liquid crystal display manufacturing factory. So our approach was we would do some of the engineering, the science, and the development, and writing the recipe for what we want the factory to make. And then we would have partnerships in factories at that time here on the US side or later on in the far east as well that would help us build the what's called panels, the liquid crystal cell itself.
So as those partnerships are maturing and being developed with industry, and as you scale up, you start to find out what was a trivial test cell to make at a small scale, now when you want to make tens of them or hundreds of them or thousands of them, new problems start to emerge. The problems are also difficult to solve because we don't know—we are not the factory. We're the technologists that are providing the recipe, so but we are also not having the time to look at fundamental issues. So we're taking some of these core problems, there were a few very, very key problems that were emerging that early on between polymers and surfaces that needed to be solved in order to be able to mass-produce these things at any of the liquid crystal factories. And so based on that, our joint work with liquid crystal researchers at the Liquid Crystal Institute and the research people at the company were really well suited to work together.
CRAWFORD: Right, okay. And I was also wondering if you could just say a little bit more, because you said that part of the mission or the founding mission of Kent Displays was to commercialize this Liquid Crystal Display technology. Just wonder if you could tell us a little bit—say a little bit more about what that technology was, and in what ways it seemed to have commercial applications such that it seemed appropriate to create the company, I guess?
KHAN: So the key aspects were that it was a bistable, so it's low power, and reflective, display technology. So because it's reflective also is lower power, because it's bistable, it's lower power, it was also simpler to manufacture it. It didn't have active matrix elements. It didn't need polarizers. It was well suited for outdoor applications at that time. Other display technologies that we have so gotten accustomed to did not exist. Imagine life right around the time, there are no desktop monitors that are LCDs, no laptop monitors such as today, no televisions, no smartphones, so if you take all of those things away, the display industry is in its infancy, and in a bistable reflective technology that's relatively easy to manufacture, and became very crucial in the industry, in the space.
The other aspect of the technology that was really enabling and empowering was the fact that the way it was driven, it could be scaled up to a much bigger size and lots of pixels. In the mid-'90s, that was a huge statement to be able to make a large area display relatively easily and drive it and have a low cost. You put low cost bistable, low power, sunlight-readable, easy to manufacture, all these things together, and this became a very, very compelling display technology for that era. And so it was a no-brainer applications from signage, reflective signs to instrumentation to handheld devices, to book readers, and you name it, it was applicable in many, many different areas, particularly at that time.
CRAWFORD: And just, again, asking for a small point of clarification, what does bistable mean?
KHAN: Bistable means that you can have two states, on and off or bright and dark, so they contrast and you can create an image but both states don't require power to stay there. So in this context, bi-stability is used to describe the type of technology that you switch once, and then once you're done switching, power is removed, and everything stays where it is indefinitely till you apply power again. So it's better for applications where you switch once like a sign, you switch it and it stays there for some period of time, not as applicable for applications where things are switching all the time like a television.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. Okay. And I don't know—I'm not sure how much you can comment on this, but this technology that came out of the Liquid Crystal Institute, the discovery or development of it, was it by design or did it happen—?
KHAN: Certainly, it was by design. It was vision of Professor Bill Doane in the '80s. And I'm sure he'll speak in much more detail about it, but it was the vision of trying to give the world his solution for a reflective display technology that doesn't require a backlight to fight constantly other lights. And so he had assembled a relatively large team, an extremely capable team, including people like Professor Phil Bos to work on this type of a problem. And out of all of that work emerged things—emerged the cholesteric bistable technology, which was then, in the early '90s, as it was maturing, the ideas were maturing, it was determined that this was really valuable, and it should be commercialized. And so the company was spun off and was given an exclusive license to go take that base technology and commercialize it. In the process of the engineering and the science and commercialization, lots of intellectual property then was written by either jointly between Kent Displays and the Liquid Crystal Institute, or in many cases, solely by Kent Displays because as you are trying to solve commercialization problems, you are giving birth to new intellectual property.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. Of course. So you mentioned that they are cholesteric bistable displays. I know cholesteric. Of what little I know about Liquid Crystals, that's a type of liquid crystal, I think.
KHAN: Yes, that's correct.
CRAWFORD: Is that what you had done your research on at the Master's level?
KHAN: No, at the Master's level, my research was purely around alignment layers for liquid crystal displays in general. So that could be applicable to any displays. A lot of my research work at Wooster in liquid crystals with Professor Shila Garg was in a different type of liquid crystal, a much more fundamental work. And so no, my exposure to cholesteric materials and cholesteric displays in general started in September of 1995, when I came here to this place.
CRAWFORD: And was it difficult or easy to make that transition? Like if you knew about the properties of the other types of liquid crystals, was it pretty easy to kind of get up to speed with the cholesteric crystals?
KHAN: Liquid Crystals on the surface can seem easy.
CRAWFORD: I don't mean to say--
KHAN: And when you start going to the detail, they start to get more and more complex and the devil's in the details. So yeah, it really helped to have a lot of the research training and helped to have a lot of the Liquid Crystal Physics and Liquid Crystal Display science behind all of this. But certainly a lot of new learning about the particular type of display. And again, my peers here at Kent Displays, but also at the Liquid Crystal Institute were crucial in helping bridge the gap and lots of reading and lots of experimentation and so getting to know this really amazing phase of matter.
CRAWFORD: Right, right, right, so. Again, fitting with that, a kind of supportive, team-working, camaraderie type environment that--
KHAN: Absolutely, yeah.
CRAWFORD: Great. Well, I think we've reached the end of today's session. So I think we'll stop here, but thanks for your time.
KHAN: Thanks so much, Matt. It was a pleasure. I'm looking forward to more discussions.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, likewise.
CRAWFORD: Okay, my name is Matthew Crawford and I'm a historian of science at Kent State University. I'm here doing an oral history interview with Dr. Asad Khan, CEO of Kent Displays, incorporated in Kent, Ohio. This is our second session. Today is June 11th, 2021. So I wanted to pick up with where we left off last time talking a little bit about your starting years at Kent Displays, Kent Displays Systems as it was known then, when you were talking about that experience transitioning from the Master’s Degree to working at Kent Displays, you mentioned that that period, sort of the mid '90’s was real hot time for liquid crystals and liquid crystal displays. And I just wonder if you could say a little bit about what do you think was driving that or what was behind that kind of boom in liquid crystal.
KHAN: Absolutely. It was, as you say, a fantastic time, so much energy in the industry, so much growth, there was innovation, there was manufacturing, both capacity and capability being developed a little bit here in North America, but so much in the far east in four countries, primarily Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and then soon to be China. That capacity was then driving more and more commercialization of flat-panel displays at that time. That's what really the industry was called. The laptop screen had been done. So laptops were advancing, quickly transitioning into desktop monitors. And so that became more and more prolific. The aspirations of the industry to get to bigger sizes was there. There were competing technologies, but the liquid crystal display industry tended to prevail and soon getting into televisions, smartphones, starting from Blackberry's were getting into the 2000s and that was drive... So many of these applications were fitting very well with what the display industry and the technology innovations were able to do. We, here at Kent Displays, along with many other companies were working on new innovations, getting to flexible materials, things like that. And so we were part and parcel of that industry looking at the next event horizons to see where things would go. So it really was. It's not to say that the industry isn't big, it's not exciting, but from that time today, it's matured a tremendous amount. So today, the commoditization of the flat panel display and the massive, massive infrastructure and manufacturing capacity and capability today has really led to very, very low cost, very sharp, and outstanding-looking displays at amazing power and price points.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So was that time in the '90’s also a time—because it sounded like from what we were talking about earlier that there were certain manufacturing challenges as well as the challenges of actually developing products for the markets. So was that also a time when sort of manufacturing innovation was happening as well?
KHAN: Yes, absolutely, that's true. That's where the Bistable Cholesteric Display Technology was really was why it was so important in the industry because it offered the promise of larger area with lower manufacturing challenges, but the industry together, and a lot of the technical conferences and the industry discussions throughout the world were addressing scale-up issues, both raw materials, the liquid crystal technology itself, and a lot of the engineering around it. So the Cholesteric Display was right in there. We were using partners and fabs all over the world that had those capabilities and we're growing and becoming better at it. So it really was an amazing opportunity to be able to witness, to participate, and to talk to so many experts all over the world.
CRAWFORD: Right, right, so it really was kind of a global enterprise.
KHAN: It really was. And at the end, there are always in these kinds of industry thrusts, there are bigger players and winners and leaders as well, but it comes down to the smallest things to the companies making polarizers to glass substrates to alignment materials to liquid crystals to dyes to spear—here's so many components, engineering skills that it really was an industry-wide effort and it took an entire industry to come together to be able to solve these problems and you could witness that at symposia, at conferences globally. And I was very fortunate to be at many of them to then discuss with colleagues and peers across platforms and no one understands what kinds of problems and engineering issues that they were dealing with and solving.
CRAWFORD: So one of the other questions I wanted to ask you about this period, the mid-'90s, one of kind of the narratives that I have seen looking at the historical record and newspaper articles from not quite that time, but a little bit earlier than 1980s, that was, of course, the real boom in Japan's economy and South Korea and so, in a sense, it makes sense that a lot of the manufacturing is happening in East Asia, but there was this narrative around, I would say, American technology in general, but also specifically with regard to liquid crystals that the United States was falling behind. There was concern about sort of catching up with Japan in particular. Did you have that sensibility or what was your sense, at this time in the mid-'90s being at the Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent Displays, was that your perspective on what was happening with this field of liquid crystal research and commercialization?
KHAN: Yes, absolutely. So I think that starting in the '70s and '80s, Japan took it very seriously and started making the massive investments, risky at that time, but of course, paid off very well. To do that here in the US, there were some investments, some attempts, some manufacturing capacity starting to get built, but never really took off, never really got the full investment, the full backing, and so ultimately particularly around the mid to late-'90s, what was happening is letting sort of being in more niche applications and smaller enterprises and for an organization like Kent Displays, we were not squarely in the middle of it. Our business model was not to create a massive factory to build panels, but our business model was fabless to use the partners. We did use some partners here in the US. We used them here in Northeast Ohio even for some period of time and ultimately the real manufacturing partners, very, very strong partner in Japan we had that helped and supported us, then another company in Hong Kong. There was some European organizations that we worked with in Germany and Sweden to make the panels. So our approach worked very well as the landscape globally was changing and shifting to primarily in Japan, as you said. The next horizon was in South Korea quickly then moving to Taiwan. Then much later on, China caught up in a big way.
CRAWFORD: Right, right, right. So would it be fair to say, sort of in terms of manufacturing East Asia was ahead of the game, but R&D there was still a lot of important work being done here.
KHAN: Absolutely. And Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State University was at the sort of central point of all of that, so much innovation of new technologies, of new modes, and so many experts were here and the network of people and the connectedness of all this, so there really was a huge amount of reliance on the Liquid Crystal Institute to help develop new technologies, solutions to existing technologies and problems that manufacturing and scale-up was facing. So that was definitely very relevant in the '90s and into the 2000’s was a great place here at the Liquid Crystal Institute. There were lots of other places as well that academic institutions that were working on these types of things and maybe a little bit more fundamental science even. Ultimately in the industry, a lot of the problems became more and more engineering problems and engineering solutions, which were really better off being dealt with and handled within the enterprises and within the factories that were seeing those. At some point, they become much more centric to exactly how you're doing a particular process and not so easy for a laboratory 10,000 miles away to simulate and then be able to solve.
CRAWFORD: Right. Okay. Yeah, that makes sense and that sort of explains or I think illuminates what you were saying earlier about some of the collaboration that was happening globally and that kind of sense of shared enterprise or mission. So I want to shift gears back to your story now. You had, again, said earlier that when you finished your master's degree, you kind of felt like you needed a pause from school and moved into the industry, but then just a few years later, you're in a Ph.D. program back at Kent State. When did you start your Ph.D. program and what sort of precipitated the decision to go back to school, so to speak?
KHAN: So as I started spending more time here at the company, the master's degree was wrapped up, and I was fully engrossed as a young professional, doing as best as I could. The company was expanding and doing well. There were lots of research programs going on and particularly in flexible display development and improving the modes and the materials and the properties of the displays here, and I was very much involved. More people were getting involved. Some of the research work as professor Bill Doane started working here at the company as well as head of all of our technology, I was fortunate enough to work closely with him as well. And so he was the one that recognized around 1997 that some of the work being done was PhD-level work anyway, so maybe that I should take up a Ph.D. program. I was quite hesitant and reluctant, and I was enjoying life quite a bit, but it really was too attractive and a proposition we discussed with the Liquid Crystal Institute and the director of the Institute there at that time and the university and the Head of the Program, and so it was agreed and accepted that I would start in sort of a part-time basis, continuing to work here to take some additional coursework and then go into a research project.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So the research project that you ended up doing, did that sort of dovetail with what you were doing here at Kent Displays or was it as a separate enterprise or—?
KHAN: Yes, absolutely, it did. It was based on Cholesteric materials and Cholesteric display technologies and a lot of it to do with how the displays work and function and particular features and aspects of it that were a little bit beyond the scope of company research, but were a little bit more academic, some of that understanding, and then we also did a little bit of academic piece along with that work was to look at how chiral materials orient themselves in the Cholesteric phase in using nuclear magnetic resonance as a method to probe and understand that the positioning of the material. So that certainly was much more academic. In the end, the Ph.D. project ended up becoming a great sort of a central resource of all things from the '90’s into the 2000’s around Cholesteric display research in improving the modes and the designs, and it really was a lot of emphasis on optics, on performance, and that was put in in some of the driving stuff. So the dissertation became a great sort of central point to collect all of this information around chiral materials, liquid crystals. And so it was, in the end, being an exhaustive amount of work, both working at the company and servicing all the corporate needs, but then putting on an academic hat and doing the project, but in the end, was really fulfilling and exciting to do, but also very useful both in this narrow field of Bistable Cholesteric Display.
CRAWFORD: Right. Okay. So I just wonder if you could say a little bit more. When you say the work was more academic, what do you mean by that?
KHAN: So we did some of the project, particularly the NMR work was done at the Liquid Crystal Institute. There was good equipment there to do the NMR work combining with experts at the Chemistry Department. Professor Alex Seed was very helpful and beneficial and Professor Scott Prosser, both of them in Chemistry as well and of course, Professor Bill Doane was the world expert at NMR in some of these Liquid Crystal materials. So that part was very academic and challenged me a lot as again as someone who had done a master's degree in Physics and Liquid Crystals and Condensed Matter Physics, and then doing some coursework in Liquid Crystals, but heavily focused in the corporate environment for me, really pushed the boundaries intellectually to be able for me to be able to focus, concentrate, and learn this new field. I learned a little bit of it, but some of the work even here at the company in the Liquid Crystal Materials and Chiral Materials and additives, and so many other things within the scope of the dissertation also took on a lot more academic role. It was really fortunate to be able to focus on once you see a particular problem to be able to chase it down without having to worry about. In a corporate environment, the problem solving is more about, “Hey, if this will help make the display better or faster or brighter, do it, and if not, let's move on.” There's less interest in trying to understand why, more an interest in, let's just get it done. So having the academic side really helped to be able to say, “Okay, well, I can take off my corporate hat and put on my student hat and go chase after this, on my time.” And so that was a really good sort of synergistic thing to be able to do both at the same time.
CRAWFORD: Right. And in terms of the problems that you were chasing, I mean, I know you said that the work had to do with understanding how the crystals sort of fit together or how they're oriented. Was there a particular set of questions that you were interested in, or had there not been much work at that time about understanding how the crystals fit together?
KHAN: Yes, my interest quickly became very much around the chiral materials. So in the liquid crystal phase, in order to make a nematic liquid crystal into a cholesteric, typically you add chiral dopants. The chiral material itself, the dopant is not liquid crystal. So it hasn't been when well understood how the chiral dopant aligns in the liquid crystal phase. In order to understand that we used NMR. I was very interested in both the nematic liquid crystal, the chiral, how they fit together and it became a fascinating journey to be able to understand and use—both understand and learn the discipline of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, but then to apply it to chiral materials and hardly can claim to be the expert, but the little bit that I was able to get was beyond fascinating for me as a young scientist.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. I wonder just as a point of clarification and information, if you could just explain the difference between the nematic and cholesteric? If it's not—
KHAN: Sure, yeah, it's always fun to do. Liquid Crystal, of course, are in general between solids and liquids, have some properties of solids and some properties of liquids. And within the Liquid Crystal phase, there can be many different ways the Liquid Crystal phase arranges itself and a simple way to think of a pneumatic phase is think of these as rods or pencils, all roughly aligned together like matches in a matchbox. You kind of know roughly where they're pointed. You don't know where every single match points, but you know on average where they're pointing. And so that would be similar to a nematic phase. It's still fluidic in nature. So it flows in a bottle. You can see it, it looks like a fluid, but there's some orientational order to it.
There's a little bit of order, but not nearly as much positional order. I don't know where two different materials are. Now, if we take those same rods that are in a nematic phase, but organize them in a helix, so they twist in a helical structure, that phase then is called a cholesteric phase. And as soon as you introduce the twist, depending on how tight the twist is, can start to create some really interesting and amazing optical properties that come with it, for example, reflecting visible light. So that's the difference between the two phases, but the cholesteric phase is really the pneumatic phase tightly twisted up.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So yesterday, when we were talking, you had mentioned or used this adjective symbiotic to kind of describe the relationship between Kent Displays and the Liquid Crystal Institute. And it strikes me that your own experience as being working here and doing a Ph.D., but the work that you're doing which you've explained is you were following some questions and some problems that maybe the company wouldn't normally follow because of their interests and demands on their resources. So being in this Ph.D. program and working for Liquid Crystal Institute kind of provided a space for you to do that, but then it also sounds like the work that you did became a resource for the company, if I'm understanding correctly. So I mean, would it be fair to say that your own career is kind of, at this time, is an example of this kind of symbiotic relationship?
KHAN: Oh, absolutely. I think that's really well put, Matt, that that's what was going on then that I could go off and do some more of this academic work and then of course it was great stuff from an academic institution perspective, but much of it also helped coming back into the company because having those, some of those problems solved really can be very powerful, not just the research project. I remember times when I would go attend one of the classes at the Liquid Crystal Institute, part of my coursework and come back to the company and literally having learnt some new concept and while in the company, we're trying to solve some issue and I'm able to take that concept that I just was exposed to and be able to contribute and say, "This is how it might be working, or maybe we should look at that."
The benefit was, it's not that I knew something that others didn't, but it was fresher and so having to go back and forth literally was driving the three or four miles between the company and the Liquid Crystal Institute was really awesome. And I have to say that it's noteworthy to point that the professors that I was working with, [Oleg] Lavrentovich and Professor Yang who was critical in my dissertation work, and many others, Peter Palffy and Philip Bos were so understanding of the constraints of someone who is working full-time who's got to go back and forth. They were professors when I had to travel and I had to be out for three, four, five days, they would try to organize the classes around that schedule. There were only four or five students in the class. And so it was so awesome to be able to be in a community, in a small group that cared about such detail so I didn't miss critical stuff. It really was a great partnership.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. Would you say that at the time that you were doing this, were there other Ph.D. students like you that were working in industry and pursuing a Ph.D. or were you unique in that sense? Were you maybe breaking new ground in doing this or—?
KHAN: In my career there, at that time, I was the only one. I don't know if that was necessarily the smart thing to do or an example of what not to do, but I was only one. I don't think—it wouldn't be fair to say it was groundbreaking. I'm sure other people in the past had done or tried to do similar things, and I'm sure other people in the future have. For some reason at that time in my courses and in my time, I was the only one, which from time to time in study groups and things like that with great friendships I had created within that set of students also was a little bit difficult because my peers were all focusing 100% on the coursework. And here I was to do the coursework and quickly go back to work and focus on the company side, so it was challenging from time to time.
CRAWFORD: Just in terms of the demands on your time?
KHAN: Yeah, we would have a homework assignment, and then the next two days later, everyone is getting together saying, "What were the challenges? Was someone able to solve the problem?" And here I had not had time to even look at it. I thought, look, if it's not due till Friday, I'll try to get to it on Thursday night. It's a learning experience and certainly teaches you incredible time management skills and also tells you that the bandwidth of a human-being is incredibly powerful. If we put our mind to it, we can do a lot more. I used to joke as I was wrapping up my Ph.D. work that I was so excited that as the Ph.D. program was going to get wrapped up, that all I had to do was work full-time. Now, it should be really easy.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. Yeah. I can imagine. It probably seemed much simpler to just be working at Kent Displays. So you finish up your Ph.D. In 2003 and I noticed that again, from looking at your CV, you have a number of patents. I think some of the first ones that you got were while you were working on your Ph.D. And so I wanted to just briefly ask you about patents and how important was that to your career to your standing as a scientist or someone working in the industry. What role is patenting starting to play or what role has it played for you?
KHAN: So it's a great question. I think I want to pause a little bit and just sort of build a context around this. And I'm very proud of the fact that the organization here at Kent Displays has created great balance of hiring and cultivating and nurturing individuals and technologists, but at the same time, also our work here gets represented as a collective. And so one has to be very careful because the company is not an academic institution. It's not here to promote academic careers and patents of individuals. What we're really here doing are collectively to say what will improve what the organization's mantra and mission and vision is, but it does require some balance because the individuals and the technologists want a little bit of individuality to all of it and some of our career.
The patents are very strictly not for individuals, but they really are more for, if it requires protecting the intellectual property, then you write the patent. It becomes a legal document, and those people that contributed towards this invention become the inventors and so on and so forth. So in the mid-'90s and late-'90s, there was an extremely heavy emphasis on licensing our technology at which point, the patents are very important. We were also doing tons of groundbreaking fundamental work in the technology, and so there was a lot of intellectual property being generated, and some of it was being written up as patents. And I happened to be here and playing critical roles in many different aspect, and so yes, was both contributing and fortunate to have those patents.
Some of that work slowly changed to have less emphasis on patents as we get into the 2000’s and a little bit more emphasis on tradecraft and secrets and process that then don't get patented. It would be fair also to draw attention to publications at the same time. The organization was really, really great at deciding what to publish, what to allow publishing for many different purposes. Some of it was for community and for industry, to have this position, to have both technology and thought leadership within the industry and the community globally and then some of it also to benefit the individuals, the technologists that were all collaborating and working together. Many of our patents, many of our publications were jointly done with other organizations, other institutions, Kent State University. Sometimes it had other companies on them as well. So really, really prolific in inter-company, intra-company, and private-public partnerships in many of these research projects.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. Yeah, I should've mentioned that the patents are collective. There's multiple patent holders for the ones that you're on. So I want to ask you a question about, you kind of mentioned the collective nature of the work, but then there are also individuals working, and does that tension between the collective and the individual, does it exist as a tension? Because we have a narrative about scientists as like the lone genius, right? That's a popular narrative, but a lot of what you've been saying has really been emphasizing the collective nature of science.
KHAN: No, it's been a very, very healthy environment the entire time I've been here at this organization, and many other organizations I suspect are like that as well, and can be a little bit different from academic environments where it's a little bit more focused on individuals, whether it's professors and even students. And some of the reason here is there is a very clear joint purpose and mission. We are all working together to do one thing today at the company, whether that's research and engineering and quality and manufacturing and marketing and sales, everyone has the same clear mission. So it doesn't matter what department, what level, what title, we're all hyper-focused towards that. And so back then and all the way to today have had a very healthy environment of company-first, and that really helps.
It can make one think that individuals are lost within this sea of sort of company-only, but it hasn't been the case here in this company. And I think one can co-exist and highlight individual accomplishments and benefit from individual talents and yet work as a group, yet work as a team. I want to use a sports analogy. One can pick up any sports team, but if you pick up let's say basketball, I'm a little bit more from the time of Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, and some of these other amazing players that were in that era and in the Bulls team and, of course, Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen were amazing and were critical to that team, but they would completely not be operational if the rest of the team wasn't there and vice-versa. And so I think that's a good example of where individual talent is both important and needed, but the collective on the team effort is equally important and one without the other cannot exist.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. You mentioned that you think that Kent Displays had and has a healthy environment to promote that. Is there anything in particular that you think the company was doing at that time or has been doing that promotes that kind of collective sensibility in a healthy ways of just working towards the common goal, or is there something else that you think—?
KHAN: Boy, a tough question to answer, but the simplest and quickest thing that comes to mind really is leadership. I think the leaders of the organization, Professor Bill Doane was critical here as Head of Technology to have such a selfless attitude and approach to promoting and highlighting talented young individuals all the way from that time and Joel Domino who was a principal in the organization on the financial side also having a very similar approach, to a selfless approach to let's promote the individuals that are doing the right thing. I think that tailored and formed a culture.
I, of course, as a young professional at that time was learning from these two individuals and learning what they were doing by their actions. They never came to me and told me, "Thou shall do this and do it this way," but I was being molded and formed by looking at them and working under their leadership. And today I'm fortunate enough to be very proud to say that we have continued that same culture that Bill Doane and Joel Domino were forming in those early stages of the organization all the way back in the '90s. And I think that as we've had lots of transition, lots of people have come and gone, we have many people that are here, that were here back in the '90s as well that we have all continued that same legacy mindset. And so today's culture is very symbolic of the culture that was in the '90s of, let's roll up our sleeves and get it done and do what is needed, again, company-first without losing the credits and the recognition of individuals and talented people.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. I wonder if you could just say a little bit about the composition of the company, and what I'm interested in is I'm thinking of a company like Boeing that up until, I don't know exactly when, maybe 10 or 20 years ago was essentially a company run by engineers and then shifts in structure. Is Kent Displays largely composed of people who have a strong background in science? I mean, you're a CEO right now, you have a Ph.D. in Liquid Crystals. Is that true for other people who are in leadership and management positions or—?
KHAN: It's a good question. Today, the organization, in a large part, there is a lot of senior talent that came from many of the technical backgrounds. Our Head of Operations used to be at the Liquid Crystal Institute, and yes, is an engineer. Of course, our technical teams are filled with Liquid Crystal and Polymer experts, and the same in our Engineering group, the same in our Manufacturing and Processing groups as well. Where the company had to and does have today is to bring in talent that we just simply did not have, sales, marketing. This side of the organization was not internally sort of cultivated because we just didn't have that talent. So we have been able to bring in lots and lots of people from outside that have those skill sets that some of the technical people did not have.
And of course, today, my approach is to rely on much of the talent, both of the people that have these skills and we use a tremendous amount of outside talent as well in from agencies to consultants to bring in those skill sets. So I think it would be fair to say that it's a mixture today of leadership, both stemming from some of the Liquid Crystal, the Physics, the Chemistry and the Engineering parts of the organization and those people that were here in the very early stages back in the '90s and still continuing to carry the torch, but yet combining with younger talent with more experiences in these other areas of product, of design, of marketing, and sales.
CRAWFORD: Okay. So again, I want to kind of pivot back to your own biographical story. So you finished your Ph.D. in 2003, and then in 2004, you moved to a new position in the company as VP of Research and Development. That's followed by VP of Technology and becoming a member of the Executive Committee. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that period. What were some of the things that were going on with the company? What were some of the challenges that you're working on now that you've finished your Ph.D. and you've turned back to industrial work full-time?
KHAN: Yes. So it was kicking and screaming, being pulled out of the laboratory and having to do a little bit more leadership and management. The company was going through a massive growth in the early 2000s. We were working on Flexible Display Technologies, and had set forth ambitious technological goals. We were fortunate to have lots of external funding, lots of internal investor support for that type of work. And honestly looking for our north star as the Liquid Crystal Display industry was maturing in the early 2000s, our technology's relevancy was getting squeezed more and more into a narrow or niche space.
And so it became extremely important to go look for what else can we do and the Flexible Materials and Display Development in the early 2000s to the mid-2000s became absolutely crucial to the future of the company and what we wanted to do. Again with Bill Doane in the technical leadership position, it really was—we were poised very well. The funding really helped to be able to—I was fortunate in these roles to be able to hire lots and lots of talented people from all over the country and literally all over the world to come here and become part of the team to build this base of new set of flexible Display Technologies that we could do cholesteric materials.
CRAWFORD: Okay. So what were these Flexible Displays? Could you tell us a little bit more about what the technology was?
KHAN: A good way to think of it is that the same cholesteric displays that were captured between glass substrates with a very, very thin gap, our approach in the 2000s was to surround the materials with polymers, so in a loose way to call it encapsulated. Once we encapsulate into this polymer matrix, now those rigid glass substrate can be converted to flexible plastic substrates and still maintain the mechanical integrity of this sandwich, so to speak, so that it can be flexed. So that's a good way to put it. The key aspect of how to introduce this polymer, how to create this encapsulation is what became the focus of the research work to ultimately lead to, here is a way to make a flexible cholesteric display that will perform, that will behave, that's manufacturable and that's processable and that's rugged. So that's really what it was. So it's ultimately inside that encapsulated space, the cholesteric materials was the same, and so which we had developed and built in the '90s. So we were leveraging all of that and now combining it with flexible encapsulated polymers.
CRAWFORD: And at the time that the company was working on these materials, what did you envision as the applications of them? What were you thinking in terms of the endpoint?
KHAN: We didn't have a great idea. So at that time, it was really developing a set of solutions to say, this technology which is outstanding in terms of reflective and bistable, once you can make it flexible, we can turn it into many things. And as we matured the technology, a couple of different application spaces emerged. One very, very critical one for us was in the area of smart cards. So you could have a very thin flexible display inside a form factor like a credit card. Another as the mobile phone industry was maturing rapidly became also electronic skins, so the idea being that you can now have reflective color, flexible materials on the outside of your electronic devices so that they can look colorful and change and the industry responded in a strong way around that.
These two applications were some of the main ones. We had a crucial anchor customer in the mid-2000s that was a wristwatch manufacturer and that wanted a flexible display, so similar to, but instead of putting it in a smart card, we would put it in a wristwatch and curve it around your wrist. So these were our early visions of applications with huge markets around them. So the market pool was very big and so we became hyper-focused to say, "Okay, we've developed some of this manufacturing, some of this flexible technology and so these are the markets we should be going after."
CRAWFORD: Okay. And so at this time, the, let's say, products that you're making, so to speak, are really, for other industries, other companies to use, you're not making things directly for consumers?
KHAN: That's correct. Our business model up to that point had always been a component supplier is what it's called in the industry. So you make a component, you sell it to someone else, and they make a device and put it in. So we would sell a smart card display to a company that might make a smart card or a credit card. We would sell a wristwatch display module to a wristwatch manufacturer and that would make a wristwatch or an electronic skin to a mobile phone manufacturer. So all of this work was centered around component sales. As we were getting more mature into this, it's important to point out the manufacturing part. Up to the mid-2000s, 2005 or so, our model was fabulous. If you recall, we had partners by this time all over the world in Europe, in the Far East that had factories that could make LCDs every day, every night, and we had very good partnerships with them. So we thought we had now come up with enough flexible designs and flexible technologies that we can go to the same partners and that would convert them into products for us, into display modules. It turned out that none of them were able to do it because they were so focused on glass and rigid substrates that they were unable to transition and transform. That's what led us to then creating our own manufacturing capabilities.
So in around 2005 or so is when we decided we really must develop our own manufacturing capability because no one else in the world is able to use it. So that became really important for us and was the first major transition to go from a fabless organization to going into a phase that would say we would manufacture the Liquid Crystal Display module ourselves. And so we launched on this ambitious journey to start developing a manufacturing line from scratch with a completely new vision around how we would do it.
CRAWFORD: So I wanted to ask you about this because I saw on, again, looking at your CV, under your time as VP of research and development, you mentioned developing the world's first "Roll-to-roll Cholesteric LCD Manufacturing." And I was wondering if you could explain what that is, Roll-to-roll Cholesteric LCD Manufacturing. Obviously some of those terms we've already discussed, but?
KHAN: The manufacturing, the way typically it was happening in the display industry and much of that happens today are taking rigid glass sheets and bringing them close together, putting some liquid crystal in between them, and then cutting them up, sometimes with a mechanical wheel, sometimes with a laser, etc. Our approach was to take rolls of plastic and use a manufacturing line to unroll the plastic, bring the two rolls together as they unwind, inject, and introduce liquid crystal at the same time and do the rest of the process and cut it out at the end of the line with a laser, and so completely different, unusual, and new in terms of how cholesteric displays could be manufactured, but our fundamental technology development around these flexible modes and the manufacturing capability development all were going hand-in-hand.
So it was an outstanding opportunity to be able to build something from scratch. We went to sources for manufacturing line development and design and engineering that were completely outside the display industry. We literally were—our raw materials such as the plastic films were not from the display industry and some of the coatings on there were not from the display industry. So we really were doing groundbreaking work as a small enterprise to go establish this.
Today, it's easy to talk about and fun also, but at that time we didn't realize, but we were—almost every step we were taking, we were solving new problems and breaking barriers and breaking new ground in every little aspect of this stuff. So we, as an organization, back to this collective are very proud of being able to do that work back in the mid-2000s.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So you've already talked a little bit about the challenges of developing this manufacturing process. Does the manufacturing happen here in Northeast Ohio or do you have a manufacturing plant somewhere else or—?
KHAN: No, it's in fact, the building we're sitting in, it houses the now three different manufacturing lines. The first one started in 2005 or so, and now we have three of them and all three of them reside within this building. And so every single cholesteric display panel that that's made globally originates from this building today. So we've been really proud of it and really has been an outstanding journey.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. And it's interesting too because, of course, this region of the United States has a history in the late-20th century of losing much of its manufacturing, so you guys are sort of bringing this back. I mean , I'm curious if there was any sense of what the response was from the state or the local community to be putting this type of work industry happening here?
KHAN: First of all, we have been very proud of the fact that we've kept it here within Kent, within Ohio and within the US, but yes, besides the pride there has been and was a lot of a tremendous amount of funding and financial support through the third frontier project at the state of Ohio and also some other funding as well in addition to our investor. So putting all of these pieces together really enabled us to embark on this ambitious journey to establish manufacturing capability and capacity here by orders of magnitude bigger than what we could have imagined, and as the story unfolds was the right thing to do and really benefited the organization as well as the region and put us, the organization, and the region and Kent on the global map of 21st-century Liquid Crystal Display manufacturer here in Northeast Ohio.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So what you've been talking about with developing this new manufacturing line and the work that you're doing, as we mentioned, you had moved to more of a leadership position in the company as VP of Research and Development, VP of Technology. Have you pretty much moved away from direct research work at this time? What was your sort of balance of commitments or duties?
KHAN: Yes. It was tough in some ways. To let go of directly touching the science was very tough, but at the same time, it was very exciting to work with more professionals and technologists and engineers and scientists and work with them very closely to try to lead, to try to inspire, to try to push, and help solve some of the problems. The romance with the laboratory almost never ends. So it's very difficult to completely let go. I was fortunate to be surrounded by so many young and old talented individuals. I was fortunate to be able to take over much of the technology leadership from Bill Doane as well, yet having him around to be able to advice and counsel much of the team that I was building at that time was we were very affectionate with each other. And so there was a lot of leeway to be able to get into the middle of it.
As one matures, there's always this danger of not letting go of some of the favorite parts because at some point you'll become less relevant and the people that are actually in the trenches know more than you do. So one has to develop that maturity. One has to develop this trust with those individuals. As that maturity, for me, as an individual and the trust in the team comes, it becomes easier for me, as a technical leader, to take on more of the challenges of leading, of helping steer the organization in the right direction, of steering the technical teams in directions so that they can solve the problems that are relevant for the company. So it's a very sort of roundabout answer, but yes, it wasn't easy, wasn't overnight, but it required lots of challenging moments and times, but ultimately helps in technical leadership when you have spent a lot of time with your sleeves rolled up and working for more than a decade and within the technical field. So really was. It was unique. It was beneficial for me as well as for the organization.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. Just want to ask a brief question on this nice phrase you used, the romance with the laboratory. What to you is the romance of the laboratory? What is it that miss about that?
KHAN: So we have to go back to very, very early on, you had asked me about, we were talking about experimentalists and theorists and “Hey, why did you get involved?” And I remember that research work with Professor Shila Garg back in the days in Wooster and getting used to experimentation. So honestly, I have to admit that it must have been natural for me to get drawn towards playing with things and using my hands and being in the laboratory and getting that positive feedback and the iterative work of trying something, failing, trying it again, succeeding. And so much of my work here in the company from day one was around building things, solving stuff, and creating environments and tests and experiments and at the Liquid Crystal Institute and working with individuals there and here, going to factories all over the world that were our partners and jumping into the factories and trying to understand what's not working, what will work, we did with a lot of licensees. I spearheaded much of technology transfer work on teaching and educating them.
When you get so much embedded in it, that's where that word came from that it just becomes your love. It becomes so much ingrained in part of your life that I thought it was natural to use the word, romance with that laboratory and romance with this work and not to get carried away with it, but it's good. It's a great relationship with that work because it enables and empowers an individual to then be able to accomplish a lot because we, as workers, as contributors in any organization, tend to do much better when we like what we do.
CRAWFORD: Right, right, right. And there was one other thing I wanted to ask you about. You said something about, at this time where you or someone who works in the industry like this makes the transition from researcher to leadership or management, you become less relevant. And I just wonder if you could say a little bit more about what you meant by that?
KHAN: Yeah, absolutely. And one can take that as a negative, but I have always embraced it because if one embraces it, then you focus more on that trust. You must trust and I'm a strong believer in those that are actually doing the work and turning the screws and making the panels and measuring them and destroying them know so much more about it. What we can often do as senior leaders is not recognize that fact and jump in there and say, "I know better." One has to resist that temptation and the only way to resist it is to admit that your relevancy is less, that the person that's telling you, that's actually in the lab knows more, understands more. All we have to do is listen. We have to create that trust, and that person in the laboratory is relying on the leader to be able to then point in the right direction, to be able to pull the organization. They will happily solve a problem. You better give them the right problem to solve.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. And I mean it sounds like part of what you're saying is—or let me ask you, is part of it that the younger generation, the people who are doing hands-on working in the lab, they're the ones who have time to keep up with the literature and know more of the cutting-edge science, or have you found it difficult to keep up with developments in the field as you've taken on other responsibilities as leadership or is that—?
KHAN: No, it's definitely a challenge. You have to focus more on trying to figure out on strategy, on where to go, so one has to let go of things. I have just personally been very interested in the science, so I've tried to keep up with reading, with literature as much as possible, but you can only do so much. The other thing is that in today in 2021, the speed at which information carries from point A to point B and what are the developments is incredibly fast. And what a development takes place in the middle of Taiwan is here on our screens microseconds later, and we can converse about it and talk about it and touch it and see it and read about it and then interact with those individuals that are on the other side of the planet is huge.
And so an individual in 2021 in the technology space can do incredibly greater amounts of things than an individual in the technology space that could have done in 1995. And so that makes it even more difficult for then the leader to try to keep up with that pace. And I go back to reliance on an outstanding team and the trust that's created, and for me, that has come naturally because, in a large part, because I have worked shoulder-to-shoulder with many of the individuals that today are in senior leadership roles in this organization. And to me, it's not a matter of trusting what they're saying about the laboratory or operations or engineering. It's, I would trust them with my life.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So again, just briefly, what are some of the ways that you keep up with the science, and what's happening in the field?
KHAN: This was a little bit before COVID, but certainly have been very interested and touch base and network with a lot of people, individuals, organizations, attend, even to this day, technical conferences and meetings as well, more for networking, a little bit less in reading literature. That's a lot heavier and more time-consuming. So a lot of networking and conversations with peers all over the world is really has been my principle approach to trying to at least have a little bit of sense of what's going on in the industry.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah, of course. So in 2009, you become the Chief Technical Officer of Kent Displays and you're in that position for about 10 years and since March, 2019, you've been CEO of Kent Displays. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about this period since you've become CTO and then CEO, what do you think are some of the most important accomplishments, challenges, changes that have taken place, as you've taken on additional leadership responsibility?
KHAN: Yeah, my time in the technology leadership part in the last decade was really, really exciting and interesting from helping steer the organization from a very early consumer products manufacturer, where we started the writing tablet work and led to the boogie board to an incredible amount of work in global supply chain development. Our development of our manufacturing lines was one thing, developing supply chains, both for raw materials and assembly became another set of challenges together with our teams. It was a really, really amazing journey to learn. It's easy in this interview to talk about it, but there were lots of missteps and stumbles and learnings and scars and bruises from all of that work. So not just technology leadership, but operations and logistics and planning and outsourcing of so much of the work that we do today.
So I was very fortunate to both be surrounded by some incredible people and working together in teams to be exposed to an incredible part of this consumer packaged goods world and selling products then directly to consumers, using the flexible cholesteric panels that we are manufacturing to lots of business interactions to try and to convince other organizations to buy our panels, which we call OEM sales, (2) and working to solve problems, whether they're in logistics, whether they're in planning in other factories and stuff, meanwhile, continuing to keep an eye on the incredible pressures of technology development to go into newer spaces because the consumer product space requires new innovation and new science all the time. So it's been a fantastic journey to be able to put all of these things together in the last decade or so.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. I wonder if you could say a little bit about what the boogie board is and sort of the development of that and then bringing it to the market and so forth?
KHAN: Sure. It's a super fun journey. If we go back to 2005 or so, our manufacturing line development, our anchor wristwatch customer going well, electronic skins and smart card display developments going well, our flexible embodiments have done very well, we've created lots of technology. In 2006, we had a local toy company that came to us asking for something you can write on and there were different approaches in this encapsulation that weren't perfectly encapsulated. And so we had some ideas and had done it, so they were very excited. We started going down this road. They lost interest, but they got us a little bit excited about it and we approached more toy companies. At this time, we were still completely a component company.
So our goal is we can now make this panel that you can write on. We have the manufacturing line. We just need someone who will buy this component and then make a product. And we had made some samples and some prototypes just to be able to demonstrate this component and everyone, as a consumer, loved these samples and this writing tablet, but we were having a very hard time finding organizations that would buy into that vision and take the leap of faith of creating this new category. So in 2009, we, as an organization, decided to go down this road a little bit timidly at that time to create the consumer product and start selling it online ourselves. And so it was a pretty bold and risky move, but we started doing it in 2009, actually starting in China, and then in 2010 here in the US. And from there on, it took on really a tremendous amount of steam. We got very lucky with an early retailer, Brookstone that took a hold of the product. We got very lucky with one of our key partners in Japan in the stationery space, and so 2010 became very quickly, a much bigger consumer products time than we had envisioned at all.
I have to note that at this time, we are still heavily focused on smart cards and electronic skins, which to us are much bigger markets at that time. So we're heavily focused, but the momentum, the market pull, and the attraction of the writing tablet as a consumer product was undeniable. And so by 2012, we really started to downsize our other efforts, made a second manufacturing line so we have more capacity, this time a lot more focused around making writing tablets. And the journey continues today. And at some point we were selling in 20 or 30 different countries globally and with our supply chain coming from a writing tablet today has components and materials coming from something like 12 different countries. And we utilize assembly factories, both in the south of China, in the middle of China, in Mexico, and today, we're very fortunate to be able to take these products, the brand into major retail in North America and all over the world. And today, heavily focused on new innovations and new paradigms within the writing tablet world.
A good contrast to look from a historical perspective is when we were talking about writing tablets prompted by those early conversations with the toy manufacturer in 2006, but by 2010 squarely going, jumping into the pool, things like the Apple iPad didn't exist, let alone the Apple iPad with a pencil. The Microsoft Surface didn't exist. The Samsung Galaxy Note with a Pen didn't exist. Today, so many of these analog writing input devices that are high functioning multi-use devices exist today and it seems second nature. But when we were talking about this and doing this as a writing tablet, none of those things existed. So we have always affectionately called this as creating this category. Other people were doing it, but a little bit on the fringes. We have been very proud of the fact that we did do that, and we're very fortunate and lucky to have some early breaks so that it can go in that direction.
Just to complete that story, somewhere in 2015 or so, it's perhaps I use it as a sign of true success when other organizations based out of China started copying our intellectual property, our brands, our design, and started to do it. We look at it as a positive sign that people typically don't copy something that's not successful. So the true sign of success is when someone copies your stuff. Today, they're prolific. There's a lot of illegal products out there, both in North America, particularly online, but also certainly in China, and we continue to have multiple approaches to try to fight them. Our primary approach is quality, is performance, it's representing our brand, and bringing products to consumers with new unique, and amazing innovations.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. So I want to just ask about, as you said at the time that you guys were working on this writing tablet, nothing like it really existed. You're sort of inventing the concept as well as the technology. What was the hesitance from—you talked about how attracting other investors and sort of interested parties in this project. What do you think was their hesitancy there?
KHAN: I think you're talking about when we had made the panel and we were a component supplier, so our natural next step was to sell this component. We didn't make end products. We made this component. I think an easy answer is that the other organizations are unable to take the risk. They're intrigued, but it's a leap of faith to say, “I'll go invest a bunch of my [human resources] and capital in creating some product and selling it out there”. There was hesitancy in price point. Our prices were a little bit high for our panels early on as well, but look, they thought that these things would sell for a very low price, but we were quickly able to demonstrate that the market was going to bear a much higher retail price than anticipated.
We were able to take that leap of faith. There was not a lot for us to lose. Again, if you remember, because we were focused on these other markets and smart card and electronic skin, so this was a little bit on the side. So I think that it was good fortune for us to be able to do that while still staying focused on other things that we thought would really bring the bigger winnings, so to speak, but I think it was fair and even today, sometimes it's often, it's very hard to convince large organizations and bigger brands to take on this product and this panel in a particular way. We've been very fortunate. We've had strong partnerships, one of the world's largest toy manufacturers, a very close partner of ours for several years, and they continue to forge ahead in newer spaces and newer technologies, so.
CRAWFORD: So I'm curious about sort of thinking about your career here at Kent Displays and now being in this position as CEO, and as you've moved more into leadership, other than obviously the technical knowledge about liquid crystals, are there ways in which your background in science, your experiences as a scientist, working in labs, being at the Liquid Crystal Institute, those sorts of things prepared you for a leadership position?
KHAN: I think certainly many things did, but I truly believe that interacting with people, with other humans all the way back to my upbringing to incredible training and education at Wooster, and to be able to interact with other people, to recognize skills, to recognize weaknesses is really the most powerful tool an individual can have because by the time you get to the top, you have to rely on so many other talents, so many other people. You cannot do things on your own. You cannot do everything on your own. So to me, that's what I rely on, is the ability to interact with other partners, peers outside and inside the organization.
The story here at Kent Displays is very unique, certainly. And I have again been very fortunate to be here from the very early days and to have hired and recruited and worked alongside so many of our senior leaders and managers within the organization, that itself is a true blessing that we know each other's body language. It's not that I have to tell them exactly what to do and what not to do. We can read each other. Sometimes that's all—may not be great either, but we have lots of new people and outsiders coming in all the time, and so it creates a really good balance and a good mixture. So no, there isn't specific training. I've been a long believer in instinct. I've been a long believer in so much in business is common sense and being sensible and reasonable that it has worked very well and we continue to forge ahead.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. I wonder if at this point you could just give us a sense. So when you came to Kent Displays in 1995, you said there were maybe 8 to 10 employees. Where is the company at today in terms of size and-?
KHAN: We are roughly about 80 people today globally. We have two major buildings in the Kent area where most of our employees are. We have an employee based in Florida and one based in Michigan, and then we have a small office and staff of five in the south of China. So globally, we're somewhat spread, but most of the focus is here in Kent. And then, of course, both our supply chain of raw materials, as well as our factories are all over the world. Our customers and retail partners are in multiple continents and many different countries today. And we still continue a lot of that licensed business of the niche bistable cholesteric display for other applications. So our partners and licensees continued to do that work and business, and so we still interact with those partners and licensees in meaningful ways.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. I have a couple sort of concluding questions. I don't know if there is anything else you want to share about your career experience at this point or anything that I overlooked, for instance?
KHAN: No, Matt, you have been great. And I don't know if you've overlooked that much. And for the listener that has made it this far, I don't know if I have some golden nuggets. After nearly approaching 26, 27 years of doing this and being here both in this country and at this company has been an awesome privilege and also a responsibility. I feel that so much of the credit goes to so many of the individuals around me that the notable names, again, Shila Garg in Wooster and Bill Doane here at Kent State and also at Kent Displays, and Joel Domino here at the company, those are really are notable names and my two cents after all this time is that that one has to focus on the clear and present, on today, and to work hard, particularly for young professionals and individuals to not get carried away with where I'm going and what will be great. Work hard today and great things will come.
You did ask about leadership and my work at Wooster as part of my work-study, working in food service even to this day has been essential in shaping in how I interact with people, how I work both as a leader and also as a peer for so many other people around here was an amazing experience of four years, working in many different aspects of food service, so I deeply value it and respect it. Finally, I think that my upbringing and my parents really were—they did some remarkable stuff, which now as a parent of three brilliant individuals, I recognize how difficult parenting is and how flawlessly my mother and father did their work which led to the foundation which has led to where I am today and hopefully continue to contribute both from a community perspective, from a science perspective, but also most importantly from this company's perspective.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. It occurs to me, we haven't talked a lot about Joel Domino. You mentioned him a couple of times, but I just wonder if you could just say a little bit more about what role he's played? He's one of the three people that you just highlighted.
KHAN: Yeah. That's a great question, and Joel and I have had an amazing partnership. He was employee number one of the company and he still remains today. He's Head of our Financial Sector, but he's so much more than that. Throughout the ebbs and flows and ups and downs of the organization, he has been the single pillar that has really kept things together. He doesn't come from a science background, but he won’t admit it, but he knows more science than he realizes around the cholesteric displays. So he's kept things together financially. He kept us going, but also individually from inspiring people to supporting them to providing, he's, for me today, an amazing sounding board and an amazing individual that I rely deeply on to make sure we keep our feet on the ground, as we are trying to reach for the skies. My friendship and partnership with Joel over the last 26 years has continued to grow, and I have really appreciated him over the years.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, great. So one achievement I wanted to touch on, in 2017, you received the Industrial Physics prize from the American Physical Society and on their website, it says that you received the prize and I'm quoting here, “For novel contributions to the Physics of Bistable Reflective Cholesteric Liquid Displays and the commercial applications of pressure-sensitive liquid crystal displays, including switchable windows, e-writers, and numerous new products.” What did it mean to you to receive this award?
KHAN: First of all, deeply humbled by it and by that type of recognition and feel that I think that I am probably a token sort of person to get recognized for the work of so many individuals around this space in both Kent Displays and Kent State University, but I'm very proud to carry that badge, but want to make sure that I recognize that it's easy to stand tall when you're on the shoulders of so many other amazing individuals. I actually did not believe it when I got it. I thought it was spam.
So I was actually quite honestly quite dismissive of it and slowly came to the recognition that it was correct. And then slowly realized that it was a pretty big and remarkable recognition that The American Physical Society gives every other year to one individual globally, and so I'm, again, very proud of it. I think, to me, it really represents Wooster, it represents Kent State University Physics. It represents Kent State University Liquid Crystal Institute, and it certainly represents the entire organization of Kent Displays and all the amazing individuals that I had had the privilege to work together with. So it really is back to we've used the word collective. It really is a recognition of that collective. I think they just had to put one name on there.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So I think we should also address the fact that we are in a certain sense still in the midst of the COVID pandemic, although things seem to be improving, but the last year has been a challenge in many different ways. And I think I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about the experience of running a company in the last year when we've faced quarantine and various other restrictions, difficulties with the global supply chain. Just wondering if you could say a little bit about the experience of leading a company or your own personal experience living through a pandemic in the last year?
KHAN: Absolutely. So, so many different chapters and no preparation for it. You were talking about how does one prepare for this? There was absolutely no preparation. We had lots of visibility. We're proud of lots of firsts. We had decided to work from home before there were directives within our community to do that. We had decided to return back to work before there was clarity as to what exactly to do. We're very proud of the fact that we've been working within our buildings since July of 2020. We did not miss a step in productivity during the time that we were working from home. We are very proud of the fact that not a single known COVID transmission took place within our work environment over this entire period of time. We have taken tremendous precautions for the health and safety, both physical and mental health of all our workforce throughout this entire time.
And today, we, as an organization, embrace in our big proponents based on science and technology of vaccinations. We're very proud, of over 80% of our organization, including staff in China to be vaccinated and well on our way have made it a mission to get to a 100%. And so by and large, it's been a super journey filled with challenges, ups and downs, and also having leveraged some of our supply chain early on in March and April, we were able to produce nearly half a million face shields for the healthcare industry, using our roll-to-roll manufacturing lines and using our supply chain and access to flexible plastic materials. So we're really proud of being able to jump in, in a moment's notice and be able to pivot and develop partnerships and things like that.
There are lots of downsides too, and some of the downside includes the, you talked about disruptions in supply chain. The downside includes our business has been down, which has been a struggle to try to figure out how best to do it. We're very proud of not eliminating or reducing any of our staff during the period of COVID, which again was a struggle, and never having missed a paycheck of a single individual within the whole organization during this whole time. The supply chain problems plague us even today, globally, and it's truly a challenge, but the same logistics and operations team continues to embrace the challenge and come up with creative solutions everywhere. So lots of scars, lots of learnings, and as we go through this pandemic altogether in this organization, arm-in-arm, I feel that the organization and our health and safety and business acumen, all of these get beyond an A+ in spite of so many challenges. So I'm truly blessed and truly proud of having this group of individuals in this organization.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. So one of the themes of our conversation has been sort of you, as an individual, who has—I mean, you've gone through many different sort of cultural adjustments, we could say, although as you pointed out in smaller and smaller scale, but one of the things that you've kind of navigated is this overlap between academic science and industrial science or something like that, what we may call. And I just wonder, given your experience and thinking about the relationship between academia and industry around science and technology, is there anything that you would change about that relationship, or does it—given your experience, does it seem to be working pretty well?
KHAN: I don't know if I would change that much, but something notable and important to highlight is that the very partnership, the relationships with academia is important, within organizations is important. We have worked with tons of universities and academic institutions locally and globally. Today, we're engaged in a big funded work with a university in South Korea. We've done work with universities in Hong Kong and China and Taiwan as well. So we're proud of all those interactions, and I continue to believe and emphasize that these are important. The natural and organic stimulation of the intellect is important for technical people, for technologists, for engineers, and we have done an outstanding job.
I think, if anything, if I was on the academic side, I would do more for reaching out. Organizations like us can get busy and consumed by our own stuff and academic institutions can reach out more. If an institution knocks on our door, we're much more liable to interact with them than if they're sitting quietly and we have to knock on their door. That’s the only thing I would emphasize. I recognize it's easier said than done. Universities and professors are busy in their own worlds as well, so.
CRAWFORD: Okay. So for my final question, I want to ask you about a word that you have used multiple times in this interview, and I've heard you use it in a podcast interview that I listened to in preparing for this, you refer to yourself and I think, the people, this company, as technologists. And I just was curious if you could say something about why you use that term?
KHAN: Interesting question. The reason I use the word technologist as opposed to simply engineer or simply scientist or those things, I use it as a little bit more encompassing. And even we talked about Joel Domino, and I would call him a technologist because he's doing so much of this aspect, but the parts of the organization that are in sales and marketing and design are a little bit less in the technical nature, but whether we like it or not, our fundamental, our DNA emerges from the inside out. We are not an organization that has developed the product and the technology from the outside in, and because of that, I continued to embrace the fact that the technical aspect is in the blood of everyone within this organization. So we all are, by that definition, technologists, and we embrace it rather than try to reject it. And so even in our shipping and receiving or the marketing people or quality management, everywhere there is some bit of technology and the technical aspect which emerges from the inside out.
We start from those chiral materials and rod-like pneumatic molecules and all the way outside. So it's been fun. It's an amazing journey to be surrounded by all of these “technologists”. And I will admit and recognize that there could be, one could argue, that there's a weakness or a flaw in that logic because you have to understand more, but we cannot be all things to everyone all the time. And I think that this mantra for us has worked well and continues to service and seeps into our brand, into our products, into the way we interact with our community and the society and our customers in general.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, great. Well, I want to thank you for being so generous with your time for sitting for this interview, and I really appreciate you sharing your story.
KHAN: Matt, I thank you for the time, and I'm really glad that we're able to capture so much of this and hopefully, preserve it for some time, so other people can suffer through this and listen.
CRAWFORD: Well, I don't think it'd be that much suffering, but, great, thanks.
KHAN: Thank you.
(1) Center for Advanced Liquid Crystalline Optical Materials (ALCOM)
(2) Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) Sales ×
Liquid Crystal Oral History: Khan, Asad
Crawford, Matthew James
An oral history interview with Asad Khan, CEO of Kent Displays, Inc., Kent, Ohio. This interview is part of the Liquid Crystal Oral History Project. Khan shares of the development of his educational and professional careers. Born and raised in Pakistan, Khan came to the United States as an undergraduate student at the College of Wooster where his work with Professor Shila Garg sparked his interest in research. He then completed his graduate degrees at Kent State University in physics and liquid crystals, working with his advisor Professor Phil Bos and further developing his experimentation and research skills. He discusses the opportunity he had to work at what was then known as Kent Display Systems, starting in 1995, while still working on completion of his doctoral degree. Khan talks about the relationship between Kent Display and the Liquid Crystal Institute as well as his experiences entering the liquid crystals field during a time of tremendous growth and expansion of applied technologies. He explains several aspects of his specializations within the field. He also gives insight into the various roles he played at Kent Display as he moved into different positions there, notably in leadership and management as Chief Technical Officer and later as CEO of the company.
Sponsors: This oral history interview was funded in part by a Grant-In-Aid from the Center for the History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics.
The Liquid Crystal Oral History Project is funded in part by the Ohio History Fund, a grant program of the Ohio History Connection. Your donations to the Ohio History Fund make this program possible.
Institutes and Centers
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audio digital file
Special Collections and Archives
This digital object is owned by Kent State University and may be protected by U.S. Copyright law (Title 17, USC). Please include proper citation and credit for use of this item. Use in publications or productions is prohibited without written permission from Kent State University. Please contact the Department of Special Collections and Archives for more information.
Kent State University
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CEO of Kent Displays, Inc. (Kent, Ohio)
LCI Alumni (Graduate)
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