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June 15, 2021
Liquid Crystal Oral History Project
Department of History
Kent State University
Transcript produced by Sharp Copy Transcription
MATTHEW CRAWFORD: My name is Matthew Crawford. I am a Historian of Science in the Department of History at Kent State University. I am interviewing Dr. John L. West, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry at Kent State University, and Director of Flexible ITO Solutions. Today is June 15th, 2021, and we are conducting this interview at the Liquid Crystal Institute on the campus of Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Dr. West, thanks for agreeing to speak with me today.
JOHN WEST: Sure. My pleasure.
CRAWFORD: I really appreciate it. So I want to start off at the beginning, and I was just wondering if you could tell us when you were born, where you grew up, and what your early childhood was like?
WEST: Sure. So I grew up in a little town outside of Syracuse, New York, called Chittenango.
WEST: It's the only one on the planet so you just say that name and it'll take you to that spot. It's a small town of about 3,000 people. I was born January 6th, 1953, so it's been a while. And I grew up there. My father was the town doctor. And so, yeah, we first off had a house in town and then moved to a sort of gentleman's farm outside of town. But I went to Chittenango High School, Chittenango all the way through, except a couple things. We were really involved with AFS. I don't know if you've ever heard of that.
WEST: It's called the American Field Service.
WEST: It really sprouted out of an ambulance service in the Second World War where people from around the world really came together, and everyone wanted to continue that, of having things come together. And so it was a thing with an exchange student program. We had one live with us from South Africa, and then I went to Australia for a year. My first trip, though, overseas was to South Africa. I actually turned 16 in South Africa, and turned 17 and 18 in Australia. So, I'm kind of a Southern Hemisphere kind of guy. Then came back and graduated from Chittenango High School and then went to undergraduate school in Virginia, a college called William & Mary in Southern Virginia.
CRAWFORD: Right. Sure.
WEST: Did my time there, although I was already a world traveler, I guess, because of AFS. So I actually left school after my sophomore year and did the whole backpack, go find yourself, and hitchhiked across the United States. Stayed with my sister who lived in Hawaii at the time, and then went to Japan and through Southeast Asia and into India. And, yeah, spent about six months on the road, which, if you had the ability to do that, would be highly recommended. And both of those experiences set me up for things that really affected my later career.
CRAWFORD: Oh, yeah?
WEST: Yeah. I think one being comfortable internationally was something that ended up being important in where I ended up in the sciences. And then, also public speaking. My AFS career, I was giving a talk once a week.
WEST: Yeah. You go to rotary clubs and different things that way. People just wanted to know about what you were doing. I'd go to different schools and just talk about what I just talked about. But I got so I was comfortable in front of an audience which, if you're gonna have a career in academics, that's probably an important thing to have 'cause it's a little intimidating sometimes.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. Sure. Of course. So with the American Field Service you were actually volunteering with that or was it—
WEST: Yeah. You had to apply. So my family applied initially with the AFS student that came to live with us. And we applied and she came and lived with us for a year from South Africa. And then my junior year you had to apply, and I applied and sent off this application that I would go anywhere in the world. Just I'm anxious and didn't know I was accepted until I—[laugh] actually kind of a funny story. My first job was at a soda fountain, sort of a prelude to McDonald's before McDonald's, and hamburgers and all that stuff. And I was working there, and my mother called, and she was crying on the phone saying, "You're leaving in two weeks for Australia for a year." And I was, like, "Yes!" [laugh] 'Cause it was, like, December. It was snowing. And I had a wonderful family and lived in Sydney. Yeah. That's just luck.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. Great experiences.
CRAWFORD: So you mentioned that you had a sister. Do you have any other siblings?
WEST: Yeah. Well, I had two older sisters. My eldest sister has passed. One elder sister and a brother who's 10 years younger. And they still live up near Syracuse.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. OK. And I know you mentioned how traveling internationally and public speaking really contributed to your career. Was there anything in your early childhood, say precollege, that encouraged you to pursue the sciences?
WEST: I think it was just kind of assumed.
CRAWFORD: Oh, really?
WEST: Yeah. My father was a doctor. It was assumed you'd go to college. And I was just a lucky person all around. And so my parents were, like, you can go anywhere you want, but it wasn't even a question that you were going to college.
CRAWFORD: Right. But were you interested in science as a child?
WEST: Yeah. It was also a proclivity of mine and was the easiest, so that really wasn't a question. I actually had planned on going into a medical career and only applied to two med schools and was on the waiting list at both. And it was really an advisor at William & Mary that suggested—so real quickly and how all this happened, I was actually waiting tables in Williamsburg. I don't know if you've ever been there but it's kind of a very touristy area. So I waited tables, and made very good money waiting on tables, and did that throughout my college career. And that summer I was on the waiting list, wasn't sure what I was going to do, whether I was going to get in, and they offered me to manage the restaurant. And I thought, oh! And then I thought ... oh. Is this really the career path I really wanted to do? And not that there's anything wrong with managing a restaurant, but I realized it really wasn't. I went back and talked to my advisor and William & Mary, and we went through a series of things, and I ended up going to graduate school at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, and that led me in that direction.
But I had not really been planning on doing the graduate work in the sciences and thought I would reapply to medical school the next year and do a more determined approach. But by the end of that first year I was hooked, and I didn't even apply, and was happy with where I was at and made a career of it at that point.
CRAWFORD: So what do you think pushed you to go to graduate school in science?
WEST: Well, the sciences was unquestioned, that I would do that. And I think if I had gotten into medical school, I probably would've done it and it probably would've been the wrong decision for me in the end, just kind of following the path of my father at that point. And then, graduate school, it was just the path of least resistance. I wish I could've said I had some master—it wasn't.
But then, once I was there, I really enjoyed it, and got with this guy that was doing photochemistry and I got into doing that. And the research went very well. And, yeah, from then on, I was pretty determined on where I wanted to go, although I did not plan on coming into academics. I was going to stay in industry.
CRAWFORD: Right. Yeah. So you graduate from William & Mary in 1976 with a BA in Chemistry.
WEST: BS, yeah.
CRAWFORD: Or, sorry, BS. Apologies. [laugh]
WEST: There is a difference. [laugh]
CRAWFORD: Coming from humanities.
CRAWFORD: BS in chemistry, my mistake. And did you go to college thinking you were gonna do chemistry or was that something that developed along the way?
WEST: No. I actually started out in biology because I was thinking I was gonna do medicine. And I wasn't good at it. It was a lot of memorization. Biology, at least the introductory bio course, was just—I didn't see the underlying mechanism. It was a lot of just learn this, learn this, and, for me, unconnected facts. But at the same time, I had to be taking freshman chemistry, which for me was just like falling off a log. It was easy. I had no trouble with it. And there was a story I actually tell in some of my classes because I still remember my freshman chemistry teacher. And this will set the time for it, 'cause now we're 1971, and handheld calculators hadn't come out. They were just coming out. And they weren't allowed in the classroom because they were too expensive. Everybody couldn't afford one. So we all used slide rules. But the professor, I remember, said, "This is in our future. This is coming, but it's too expensive right now. In 10 years the slide rule will be gone." The slide rule was gone the next year. I had my calculator and everything, which the first one didn't have a liquid crystal display but the second one did.
CRAWFORD: Right, right.
WEST: And so it was maybe a sign of things to come.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. [laugh] So was there a particular professor at William & Mary that encouraged your interest in chemistry? I know you mentioned that you had an affinity for it, but did you—
WEST: No. I'd say he was one—I can't even remember his name right now. I can see him, but I can't—this age thing. But, yeah, definitely an influence, though it was more the grades, and it was more this is just easy. And I remember going into my bio exam. I felt like I was holding a thing of water that I'd gotten all this memory in but if I moved too much it would fall out. It's like if you've ever carried a pan full of water. And so it just wasn't a natural for me, and I was gonna be fighting, whereas chemistry was easy, I thought. And so I figured if I thought chemistry was easy, I should probably change majors, and so I did. So it was that easy. No inspiration. It was easy.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. Did you get any research experiences as an undergraduate or did you—
WEST: No. No. No. I was pretty standard that way. I interacted with the professors. And William & Mary is a decidedly undergraduate school. There's not a lot of graduate work going on. And there wasn't the opportunities that we have now, so I really didn't have that. What was interesting is the professor that was my advisor ended up being involved in liquid crystals in the end and had done some work that way. And I funded some summer projects with him. His name is Orwall.
CRAWFORD: Orwall. OK.
WEST: Yeah, Dr. Orwall. And he definitely was influential in getting me into graduate school. But I went and saw him. It was July. It was almost this time of year I'm trying to get in graduate school for the fall. And he helped me through—and this was before the internet or anything else—and he helped me through the process. And I remember we started with some midlevel schools, to be frank, and I got into all those. You'd call up and give them the background and they'd say, yeah, we've got a spot, no problem. And then he explained to me that I wasn't going to have to pay for it, which I really didn't realize at that point and was kind of nice. And he goes, "That was too easy. Let's try a level up." And I had to go through an application process in that, but within two weeks I was accepted in all of those. And then he said, "Well, I got this guy at Carnegie Mellon. It's listed in the top 20 or—" I think it was ranked 12th at the time. He says, "Let's go for that and see what happens, if I can get you in." And he called up and got me in. And he did that. And I said, "Well, should we go ... " And he goes, "No, you're done." [laugh] "Carnegie Mellon's good. You should stick with that. The next level up you're probably not gonna get in. It really doesn't make that much of a difference. I know this guy. Go there." And I did.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So was this Professor Orwall, was he working on liquid crystals when you were an undergrad or that was something—
WEST: No. He may have been, but I wouldn't have known about it.
CRAWFORD: OK. So you didn't hear about liquid crystals?
WEST: He was just a professor that—"just a professor"—he was a professor in a few of my classes, and, yeah, I did well in his class. Yeah, I remember thermo, and I had a whole technique of taking thermo. And as I say, chemistry was relatively—I got it. You know what I mean?
WEST: Some things just are natural.
CRAWFORD: When you say you had a "whole technique of taking thermo," what do you mean by that?
WEST: [laugh] That's really kind of arrogant, isn't it? I always studied on my own. I was kind of a little bit of a loner that way. Most of my friends were not in the sciences. And thermo was sort of the hard one in chemistry, and so everybody would be real nervous about these tests. And so I had made a whole thing—I would study beforehand. The night before I'd get a good night sleep and I'd always go over to the gym and take a sauna before, and I'd try to walk into the class just totally casual, sit down, take my class, and ideally be the first one walking out. And then he'd always hand me the test—he'd hand them out in order, and it was usually I was the first one back. It was a little bit of being a snot. I'm sorry. It was not very—but it was fun. [laugh]
CRAWFORD: Sure, sure. And certainly indicative of the skill that you had in chemistry.
WEST: It was OK. Yeah. I did all right. Yeah. It was OK. It was good. And he had confidence in me. I have one other story with him, 'cause it was sort of my senior year and I had "senioritis" or whatever and I wasn't getting anything done, and there was all this stuff. And I went in, and I wasn't getting homework back, and it wasn't even in his course. And talked to him and he listened very intently as I went through and told him all of this. And then, in the end, I was asking for a break, right?
WEST: And he goes, "Oh. No. You need to get these in. I'm sorry about all this stuff, but none of this has risen to the level where you're given any break. Just go get it done." And he was real matter of fact. It was really funny 'cause I thought, I've told him all this, he's listened very intently, and he goes, "Oh. No. That's not happening." [laugh] And then I just walked out and got everything done. He was good. He was very good.
CRAWFORD: So you finished at William & Mary in '76, and in the fall of 1976, you start at Carnegie Mellon.
CRAWFORD: And who were you to be working with there? Was it a person that you're—
WEST: Walter Waddell was my research advisor, and he was actually admitting graduate students, so he was the one that knew my advisor. And it was more on the photochemistry side rather than the liquid crystal side at that stage. And there'd been a previous student from William & Mary that had done well at Carnegie Mellon. In fact, I was sitting at the table; so the conversation was, "Well, she's done really well. How would you compare him to her?" And he goes, "Oh, he's better." It was, like, oh, OK. [laugh] So I got in. But it was on a personal phone call that made the difference.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. And so when you got to Carnegie Mellon to start your MS, did you have any particular goals for your graduate degree at that point?
WEST: No. Nope. Just show up and see what path the world showed to me. And I signed up actually with Walter Waddell. He was my PhD advisor and did photochemistry. And I was the first one to graduate out of my class. So the research went well, and it was a good time in the sciences at that point. So I graduated in '80, so that'll give you an idea. Yeah, I entered in the fall of '76 and defended in, I think it was March of '80, so it went quickly.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. So you were admitted to an MS PhD program?
WEST: Yep. An, actually, PhD.
CRAWFORD: Or a PhD program and got your MS—
WEST: On the way.
CRAWFORD: —along the way in '79.
CRAWFORD: Now, when you say it was "a good time in the sciences," what do you mean by that?
WEST: There was a lot of funding. There was a lot of opportunities, I think, across the board within American industry and also, I think funding for research was granted. It fits into where the [Liquid Crystal] Institute was at that time. It's different, although I hear a lot of money is going to be poured into the sciences again, But, yeah, I think it was a different time. Yeah, we were still basking in the glow of the baby boom and everything else at that stage.
CRAWFORD: Right. Cold War funding.
WEST: Yeah. Tons of money. And it was good that way. I think there was a lot of opportunities across the board. So getting something like a postdoc afterwards was really easy. I had a ton of opportunities out there.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. So what kind of research did you do for your PhD?
WEST: I worked on the photochemistry of vision, and so it was on a—[phone ringing] Let me see what's going on with this. Sorry.
CRAWFORD: So I was asking you about your research. You said you worked on the photochemistry of vision?
WEST: Right. And it's really on the cis-trans photoisomerization of retinal, which is the basic compound that absorbs the light and induces the neural impulse that we use in our eyes in order to be able to see. And there were some basic questions about why is it so efficient, and so I worked on that whole problem. And the research worked out. Everything worked out. And so I was lucky that way. And the first thing I tried worked and so I went through and published papers. And, yeah, so I was able to defend relatively early.
CRAWFORD: I see. I see. And it sounds like there was a biological component to that. Were you doing anatomical work or was it—
WEST: No. No. That had been done. So I was working—it's this compound—so eat your carrots ends up being actually correct. So it's a derivative of something called beta carotene, which is the color in carrots that makes what's called retinoic acid. And that then is turned into retinol which then binds with a protein in your eye. And so every photon—this molecule is shaped like this and when light hits it, it turns like this, and it separates from the protein. But at the same time, there is this thing called the sudden polarization effect that I haven't followed but I think at the time we were saying that is probably the thing that induces the neurological impulse that tells you there's been a photon on this specific—yeah, it's rods and cones in your eyes, but they're made of these materials.
CRAWFORD: Right. Great. So was that research project, was that part of what your advisor, Waddell, was working on or was that—
WEST: Yep. And that was an ongoing project that I then became part of. And my project was to make a very specific—it was a chemistry-induced structural change that they thought was induced in the protein itself that led—it was like putting a torque on the molecule. So even though it's in this 11-cis confirmation, it really wants to spring away. And so as soon as a photon hits it, the odds that it's going to flip over are way enhanced. And so we were able to actually match the efficiency of that transformation without it binding to the protein.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. And I'm just curious about sort of the research culture at Carnegie Mellon as a graduate student. Were you working with other students?
WEST: Oh, yeah.
CRAWFORD: Did you work closely with your advisor?
WEST: Worked closely with my advisor, worked closely with other students, other faculty members within the department. Yeah. It was a community, very much so, and very different than I had been. So I said I didn't hang around so much with the chemistry students as an undergraduate but, yeah, we were a tight community, and everybody knew each other. And, yeah, I'm still friends with a number of the folks that I went to graduate school with.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. And so would you say it was a sort of a collaborative environment or was there still some competition between the students or ... ?
WEST: I'd say our group was more collaborative. There wasn't a ton of competition across the board. Yeah. And that next step I chose not—'cause I could've gone to Columbia. I had an offer there, and that was going to be really competitive and just kind of dog-eat-dog. And my advisor had been there, which he definitely wanted me to go to Columbia, and I just didn't want to jump into that kind of environment. And so, yeah, I ended up going out to Salt Lake instead. And actually, I liked the idea of working with this guy, Josef Michl, who was a photochemist out at the University of Utah that I did my postdoc with. Although, in the end, we didn't hit it off that well.
CRAWFORD: [laugh] Well, why did you like the idea of working with him? What was ... ?
WEST: He was real energetic. He clearly wanted me onboard. He knew the work that I'd done, was able to comment on it, and kind of did an outreach to me at the same time. And I applied to him, but then he was on the phone calling me, and that was a big difference in Columbia. Columbia was, like, yeah, you want to come out, you—join the crew. And, yeah, so I went out to Utah, which was an interesting—a good place. It's, like, yeah, good and bad. I liked Utah a lot and I was glad to leave.
CRAWFORD: [laugh] Right, right. So just thinking about your experience in education up to your postdoc, is there anything in particular that stands out as especially important, kind of moving you forward or influential?
WEST: Yeah. I think later in my career probably more than the beginning.
CRAWFORD: Oh, yeah.
WEST: But I minored in art history, for example, and kind of an historical perspective. So I'm taking much more of an interdisciplinary, broader approach, as I mentioned to you, in my view of science and what you need to build on in order to really make a difference. And just pulling from the sciences doesn't always work. And I think that [an] interdisciplinary nature ends up being really important that way. So, yeah, they want to term it now—it's a bad term—but doing a liberal arts undergraduate was a really good thing to do. Yeah, I don't regret that at all. And I liked the small school experience.
CRAWFORD: What did you like about that?
WEST: I think the intimacy of it and the ability to grasp the entirety of it, I guess. I mean, I knew every professor in the chemistry department, for example. And I made some really good friends. It was probably the right place for me in that I'd grown up in a small town, so it wasn't in a big city. William & Mary fit pretty well for me. I have very fond memories of William & Mary. It was a good spot.
CRAWFORD: Great. So you moved to University of Utah in 1980 for a postdoctoral fellowship.
CRAWFORD: Was that in the chemistry department?
WEST: Yep. Yeah. And Josef Michl was sort of one of the leaders in photochemistry, so it was continuing in that area. My research there was nowhere near as successful. [laugh] I did something that was supposed to be site-selected spectroscopy. I was looking at doing organic molecules and really nothing worked for that year. I didn't get a publication out of my year. And I was ready to leave at that point, so at the end of the year I was ready to move on, and wasn't sure what I was going to do, actually.
CRAWFORD: Why didn't things work?
WEST: I think one of it's just the luck of draw. If you're really doing cutting edge research, at least half of what you try isn't gonna work. And this one was a new technique called site-selected spectroscopy. You had to freeze these molecules at very low temperature. If you did it right, they ended up in a cage, and you could learn a lot from the spectra that came out of that. And you hoped to get very well-defined, sort of an NMR, if that makes sense to you—
CRAWFORD: Yeah, mm-hmm.
WEST: —response rather than a UV response. So out of the UV you would get these very clear signals and be able to do some very detailed structural analysis of what was going on. And there was some neat things that went on also by raising the temperature and seeing the relaxations that occurred. So if it had worked, it would've been a lot of fun. Didn't work. And I'd spent a year proving that it didn't work. And Michl—Josef was going in a bunch of different directions at that point in time and I didn't get that much interaction with him. Once again, a very tight-knit group out in Salt Lake. And so it was a good place to be. I don't regret it at all.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. So you mentioned that you were using this new technique. Was that a technique that Michl had pioneered? Did you have to learn it from someone else?
WEST: Yeah. He was one of the early pioneers in that. And I think in the end it hasn't ended up being that major of a technique. But you were collecting these specimens on an ultra-cold—I mean, less than 100 degrees K. You know, sort of 60-degree K kind of materials in an inner argon gas matrix, so the argon was freezing. And when it worked it was really good. It was a cool technique and there was a lot of stuff that was done with it, but it was complicated and, in the end, the information that it provided, there was other ways of getting it, I think. And so it was kinda cool at the time, but not where I needed to go at that point.
CRAWFORD: Right. So you spent a year at the postdoc, and you mentioned that you weren't quite sure what you were gonna do afterwards or ... ?
WEST: Yeah. In fact, when the postdoc ended that day, I didn't have a job yet. I was looking at coming back east. I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to do. I knew I wasn't going to continue with the postdoc. And then I got a job offer from this company, Digital Recording Corporation, which was fantastic, another just luck of the draw.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. And what was your role there?
WEST: So historically, it actually ends up being a fairly innovative—not fairly, they were very innovative at the time. And it was a combination of two companies and two guys. One guy's name was Tom Stockham, who had started a company called Soundstream. And Soundstream did the first digital recordings for the music industry. He was an audio engineer at the University of Utah but had done this company—they recorded with the Cleveland Symphony, for example, and with Telarc and Fleetwood Mac recorded with them, and Deutsch Grammophon in Germany. So they had a fairly large library of the first digital recordings. And I teach this in my class also—so I was mentioning about Moore's Law. Moore's Law in the mid '70s, late '70s allowed for the first time for real-time digital analog conversion, or analog to digital, and the reverse. The reverse wasn't so important, but it was important to be able to do real-time audio capture, digitize, and put it in a digital format that you could record.
At the time, the only way to do that was on magnetic tape, and so it was these big, wide magnetic tapes that they recorded that on. So they would go to the Cleveland Symphony—so at this point you've got a pristine recording that doesn't have the problem of an analog recording of losing its fidelity with the number of times you use it. That was an advantage. And then editing. They actually had computer editing, that they could edit and splice and take out a click or splice.
WEST: Yeah. And they did that with a lot of the recordings. But in the end, you still pressed it onto an analog LP and that was how it was done. So you could go back and find old LPs that will have Soundstream on it. A lot of the classical stuff of Deutsch Grammophon at the time, Telarc, as I said, Fleetwood Mac. And so they had a studio here, but also at the same time there was this guy named Jim Russell who was at Bell Labs. If you look at the inventor of the compact disc his name will come up. And he did some of the initial development for optically recording digital information. And so this was before there was a compact disc. And so I went to work for this company, and at the time they were developing a compact disc. And actually it was a plate probably about this size.
WEST: Yeah. And it was actually a little bit bigger. It was about this length but a little bit wider.
CRAWFORD: So you're holding up your cellphone.
WEST: Cellphone, yeah. And so the—kind of fortuitous. But what they would do is they used photographic plates and they were using a laser to write dots like you have on a compact disc. And then, the first project I had was just to clean that process up. And I'm a photochemist, so all this other stuff, and actually make these plates so they were clean. And it was when I first learned about this digital recording and error correction and listening to the difference between an audio that picks up static and a digital recording that stays pristine until it fails and then it fails dramatically. It's gone. 'Cause the error correct will work, will work, will work, and
And, anyway, so that was my first job. And then my next job was to replace the photographic plates. I'm a photochemist. Make me some. And they were at this level, make me a photographic plate. And it was funny. I was telling some of my students that my first invention was making a plate that did that. And it was made out of Knox gelatin and food coloring, and it worked. And it was really pretty amazing. And, yeah, so I made this plate in the lab. I had set up my own lab and made the plate and gave it to them and gave them some info on how to use it. And they recorded the Firebird symphony on it.
CRAWFORD: Really? [laugh]
WEST: Yeah. It was kinda cool to hear it played back. And I was, like, shit, that worked! [laugh] And then I came up with some developments on that in the process and did a lot of work with that. There was also a lot of opportunities that way, and this is where some of the AFS stuff came in that I was sent off to make presentations on D.C. on what they were doing. And also there was a company in Japan that was interested in the technology. And so I started doing international travel to Japan. And I had spent a few months in Japan, so I could speak a little bit of Japanese so that was just extremely helpful, being sent off on my own to Tokyo to go do this stuff.
Yeah. And so I did that pretty early on. But then Sony came out with a compact disc, and if I look back there wasn't a chance that a startup company was going to do the compact disc because you really had to have the whole manufacturing infrastructure from making it to the music companies and everything else, and selling it and—
WEST: Yeah, that a little startup was going to pull this off is—so I think everybody realized at that point in time that we weren't gonna make it, and I started looking for a job.
CRAWFORD: Right. Yeah, I can see that. Just a couple follow-up questions on that. This new plate that you developed that you mentioned, it was a type of gelatin and a food coloring.
CRAWFORD: How did you think to use those materials? How did you come to that?
WEST: Well, first off, the photographic plates use gelatin. All photographic film used gelatin, so I knew the basic chemistry of that just from learning about photography and everything else. And I was given this chore, find a way to—so I thought well, let me learn more about this. Also a very different time. You'd go to the library, and you would go to Chem Abs. I don't know if you—yeah, you'd be familiar with it.
CRAWFORD: Mm-hmm. Yeah, sure.
WEST: And so an ability to scan Chem Abs is really an acquired ability. And to kind of let go. There's almost a Zen thing with scanning Chem Abs in that you've got pages and pages of ... And if you tried to actually read everything—and so I learned that I'd almost take stuff in and it's like I would be alerted if there was anything interesting. You know what I mean? It was like, oh! Yeah, and I got really good at just scanning down through. And so I would just go to the library and spend an afternoon in the library following a track and see where it took me. And I was trying to come up with new ideas, new methods. I was looking at the other techniques. I knew nothing about liquid crystals. It took me into liquid crystals. And so I'd done some background on liquid crystals. Actually, the first I heard of liquid crystals was a group meeting at the University of Utah when I was a postdoc. I had never heard of them before. And so really got involved with that. Wrote up some proposals on how to use liquid crystals for optical recording that I gave to the company. But a lot of that was searching new topics and following leads, probably like you do investigating something. You don't know where a lead's gonna take you.
CRAWFORD: Right. Exactly. So just very briefly, this technique of scanning Chemical Abstracts, is that something that you started doing when you were at Digital Recording Corporation, or had you been doing it?
WEST: No. That was a big thing at Carnegie Mellon, to be able to do that, and you were expected to go do that. In fact, a funny story, one of the guys that taught organic chemistry—and he could be a hard ass—and we had to do qualifying exams. And so he's telling me, "John, you should take this qualifying exam." So, oh, I don't trust him. No, no, no, no. McCurry was his name, Dr. McCurry. And I said, "No, I'm not gonna do that." And he told me again. And then my advisor comes, and he goes, "I'm telling you, take this exam. It'll be OK." And so I go, and the exam was about the library and what books were where and where was it in the library. So if you'd gone and done research, you knew where Chem Abs was. So it was just a picture of the library, it had all the stacks, and I had to put where is this journal, where is this—and if you knew where the journal is you passed and if you didn't you hadn't been in the library, and you didn't know what you were doing. So it took me, like, five minutes and I was out and gone, and everybody else—yeah.
So, no, at Carnegie Mellon, particularly when you got to the stage of writing your thesis, but even before that, we were taught day one, you're gonna work on this project, go find out what you can about this topic. And very different than today. By the time we got to digital recording, digital recording had a computer system at this time with a local network, so everything was together. And you could dial up Chem Abs. I don't know if you go back that far.
WEST: Yeah. Chem Abs was in Columbus, by the way.
CRAWFORD: Oh, wow. OK.
WEST: And you had to reserve a time and you paid, and you had to do Boolean searches, so you would set up everything beforehand. It was like doing a FORTRAN card reader thing. You'd set this whole thing up, and then they would give you back—you'd get typed up pages of various references that you then had to scan. But instead of going to the Chem Abs you got the actual journal article.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. Wow.
WEST: Ancient history.
CRAWFORD: Well, you know, it says something.
WEST: How different research—yeah. And that used to be a skill. If you came and did a graduate program, you had to be able to do that.
CRAWFORD: Just out of curiosity, when you became a professor and started working with graduate students, did you give them that kind of test?
WEST: No, I can't say I was as good as McCurry that way in pulling that off. But my students were expected to go do it and come back, and then I'd go look and, yeah, that was a—and it's not needed anymore.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. When did you stop doing that?
WEST: It was a process, because there was a stage where you do—when you could do Chem Abs on your own computer and just come up and do it, that was big. And Google changed everything. Google Scholar—I mean, why would you go to Chem Abs anymore? I can remember we'd talk about, one day you're going to be able to carry the Library of Congress around with you. It's, like, oh, we're so beyond that.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. [laugh] But you still need the technique of being able to scan a lot of information and sort of see what's going on.
WEST: You do, but I think that's something that people haven't looked at. It's very different having a page and having a screen. Even a big screen. It is a very different technique. And for some reason or another, I don't find that scan ability there. And that was almost eerie. It was almost Zenlike. You'd look at a page, and you wouldn't read it but you'd go, oh, that's the word I'm looking for. Or you'd say, "I'm looking for words in this category." And you'd just kind of look down through. And I'm not even speedreading, it just is—do you know what I'm talking ... ?
CRAWFORD: Yeah. Yeah, I know what you mean. You have a kind of search image.
WEST: And you have to just let go and trust yourself that it'll alert you to—it's sort of like driving on the freeway when you're not thinking about where you're driving and it's, like, call me if anything comes up. It's, like, oh, nope, here. You gotta pay attention to this. So otherwise it's kind of in a calming mode.
CRAWFORD: But you feel like that doesn't happen with scanning on digital ... ?
WEST: No. And I don't know whether it's better or worse, because you definitely can follow a train of thought, and quicker and easier. I haven't been in the library and looked at Chem Abs in a decade probably. It's gone. And if you put in a keyword, it's amazing what it does. I'm kind of blown away.
But I don't know what I'm missing also at the same time, so this is definitely curated. But, yeah, even preparing for a paper, I've got file cabinets of papers I would collect. You know, here's a publication—that's so gone now. I don't know. I don't go over and do Chem Abs, so I guess that answers the question.
CRAWFORD: Right. [laugh] And then, I just wanted to ask just briefly, again, you mentioned going to give presentations in Washington, D.C. when you were working for Digital Recording Corporation, and going to Japan.
CRAWFORD: Who was your audience for those presentations? Were those professional meetings or were you...?
WEST: Yeah. They were professional meetings, and it was definitely in D.C. In Japan it was companies that I was going to go see. Yeah, but the ones in D.C. were definitely professional meetings where I was way younger than I should've been at that point in order to give those, 'cause I was, like, late '20s. But, yeah, it was good. And I think I would've been way more intimidated without having done stuff like that before. It's, like, OK you're going to stand up and, slide one ...
CRAWFORD: Right. So the meetings in D.C. weren't with any, like, government organizations or anything like that?
WEST: No, that didn't really happen until here [i.e. at the Liquid Crystal Institute].
WEST: They would've been there. Although I wasn't involved—I don't know what funding—that company was mainly privately funded, so it was a venture capitalist that funded it. And a venture capitalist, not a big group. And I don't think they were looking for government grants at the time. That wasn't where they were at. They were looking to make the big leap to production.
CRAWFORD: Right. And Japan makes sense because this is right in the time, the early '80s, when Japan's economy is really starting to take off.
CRAWFORD: And manufacturing—
WEST: And, it was funny, high-end—it's a clear change in the marketplace. And it actually figures into what I saw here probably more clearly than I did at the time, 'cause my comment was it was Sony who came out with ... Sony would be like Samsung now. Well, Samsung 10 years ago then, in the early '80s. But they had the foresight to work on it and do it and pull it together and put it into market, whereas the American companies didn't do it. There may have been research and development, but there wasn't a push to market.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. Do you have any sense of why that was, that American companies weren't doing that?
WEST: I think American companies—and probably still the case—I have no business saying this, but this is just my experience—was so focused on the short term, and at the time were really arrogant. They thought, oh, when this comes out, we'll just jump in. I don't need to do this initial—I'll just jump. RCA—we'll just jump in when it's time.
CRAWFORD: Right. [laugh] So you're at Digital Recording Corporation for three years, from '81 to 1984. And then, '84 is when you come to the Liquid Crystal Institute. And I just wonder if you could talk a little bit about how that transition happened? How did you end up coming to the LCI?
WEST: Sure. So I applied to a bunch of different companies, and it was sort of different than earlier on because now I've got an invention, I've done this stuff. So I had a lot of job offers. It was a good time. And all with companies. But it came down to, in the end, although I had more offers, was initially it was 3M, the Liquid Crystal Institute, or PPG in Pittsburgh.
WEST: Pittsburgh Paint and Glass. And, yeah, going back to Pittsburgh had a certain ring to it, so I was kind of interested that way. And actually I came to interview at the institute from Pittsburgh. I did a final interview there and drove to Kent and interviewed with Bill Doane, who was—he's the man you need to talk to on all of this. And just really liked Bill, liked the idea of the institute, and it seemed to fit my personality. And I didn't come as a professor, I came as a senior research fellow in the institute. They were building a new building. They had just broken ground. Things were moving along. And so, yeah, I was real interested in doing that. So I came back for a final meeting to—as the story goes, and Bill will get a chuckle out of this when he does it 'cause he thought I was gonna say it as his 50th anniversary or whatever—but I came and the offers moneywise and stuff were better at the companies. There wasn't a comparison. And so I came to Bill, and I said, "Well, can you do any more on the offer?" And he said, "No. We'd really like to have you but ..." So I walked around the old campus. The institute was off campus [on Lincoln Street]. You know where that building was. Well, the Robin Hood's gone. But, anyway, so I left there, and I came and walked around the circle on the old campus here and I flipped coins. I was either coming here or I was going to go to 3M.
And there was probably two important things that way that came up. So at that time I had arranged for my Australian family—so my host family in Australia was coming to Utah. We were gonna stay at Park City in, like, late winter, so this is probably September or something. And so in four months they're coming. I need to take off two weeks. I want to go and I'm going to take them to Park City and then we're going to go down and I'll show them southern—anyway, I had this whole thing planned. I tell 3M and they go, oh, I don't know. It doesn't fit with my corporate structure. We'll try to work something out, but it was just hemming and hawing. And Bill was, like, "Oh, yeah, of course. Go do this. This is important stuff for you to do," yada, yada, yada. [laugh] And so there was that just kind of undertone, along with I just liked his enthusiasm and where it was going, a new area. I'd done a bit in liquid crystals. And so I went and walked around the circle and I flipped a coin, and it came up 3M, and I flipped it again and I did it six times in a row and every time it came up 3M. And I went, all right, I've flipped it six times, it's told me to go to 3M and I'm still flipping coins. I guess I don't want to go. [laugh]
WEST: And I went down and signed, and we were done. And came largely to work for Bill and the institute.
CRAWFORD: Right. So you said you liked his enthusiasm, and you liked the Institute. I just wonder if you could say a little bit more about what was—what did you like about it?
WEST: I think it was up and coming. It looked like it was the right place at the right time. If you looked at where liquid crystals were then, it looked like it could be a major industry. He'd come out with a new technology, polymer-dispersed liquid crystals, and a new invention that I'd be working on. I had a lot of ability to continue doing what I had been doing, which was being inventive, and I thought a lot more headroom to do what I wanted. Another one that was really kind of important that allowed me to—and rightly so, in the end—allowed me to put the thumb on the scale for Kent State that, in the end, if I did really well, I could make more money, which was sort of silly. But it was the Bayh-Dole Act and the fact that inventors could get part—and KSU was offering royalties on inventions back to inventors. And I thought, well, I've done OK in the past. I'm young. Let me roll the dice on this one. And that worked out fairly well. So I was early on some of the early patents, the PDLC patents and stuff. And that was actually fairly lucrative.
CRAWFORD: Right. So I just wanted to clarify one small point. This senior research fellow position, was this something that there was an ad for it, and you applied?
WEST: Yep. Chemical & Engineering News. Yeah. Ad for the Liquid Crystal Institute. I'd done background work on liquid crystals on a new technology. And that was interesting because I had presented this idea to the company, and the company was—and I wanted to make a presentation at Kent State on this. And so I went to the company. And there was two things I wanted them to do. They had to release me. 3M wanted a release from the company that I could leave and go work for them and there wouldn't be any issues that way. And I wanted to make this presentation at Kent State. This is another kind of arrogant comment. And I knew the invention I'd done at Digital Recording was fairly important, and so I was in the president's office, and he was kind of hemming and hawing on this and going back and forth. And I said, "Well, you've got a decision to make, and you can sign this and let me do this and let me go to 3M if I chose and let me go make this talk, or you can not sign it and I'm walking out the door today and you'll never hear from me again. I'm done." And he signed, and I said, "I will agree to help you with anything in the future." And that was sort of the agreement. But they were being kind of a pain in the butt for my next step. And you sign these nondisclosure agreements and everything else that way and you do these things. And so we had a come-to-Jesus. And that's an advantage of being young and not having kids and not having a mortgage. It's, like, I'm not doing this, dude. Which I hung onto for a while.
CRAWFORD: So one thing you just mentioned in thinking about coming to Liquid Crystal Institute was you said it provided you the space to be inventive. So would you say inventiveness was, like, a core value for you at that time?
WEST: Yeah. I don't know that I articulated it that way, but, yeah, yeah, definitely. Definitely I enjoyed doing that. It was fun. And there was another important thing that I haven't mentioned at all, but it's probably important in the history of Kent State and why Kent figured out and actually figured out later on. So I'd come out in graduate school and was fairly out in Salt Lake, believe it or not, and the company was good that way. And Kent was known as being kind of a leader that way.
WEST: Yeah. They were early in the LGBTQ, the whole gay rights movement and stuff. And some of the first courses. And there was a policy at the time of nondiscrimination, which at the time was huge. And a funny story. So I come and I'm not real open. It was a different time, really. So I wasn't hiding anything, but I wasn't—and within the first six months Bill [Doane] took me out to lunch and at lunch said, "Well, John, you're single and stuff and my wife has this friend of hers, a younger teacher, and she'd like you to meet her and go out to dinner." So we're in a restaurant. I say, "OK, Bill." And then we're going back in the car, and so I thought, well, I better fill Bill in, so I just tell Bill. And there was just dead silence, and he doesn't say anything. And we drive for, like, two blocks and finally he says, "Well, that's OK, but my wife's not gonna leave me alone until you go out with this girl, so will you go out with her?" [laugh]
WEST: I said, "Yes, I will." [laugh] And that was the only time it really came up. It wasn't mentioned, it wasn't important. And I don't know when he finally told Shirley, and Shirley was fine later on. And Ohio, surprisingly, was moderately liberal at the time. We had a very liberal governor and, yeah, very different times in Ohio than it is now. So Dick Celeste was governor when I ...
CRAWFORD: Yeah. So was that part of your decision making ... ?
WEST: Yeah, it was. It was. And it was later—and it happened twice probably in my career—well, I had decided when I came here—I was always moving around a lot. I traveled, I'd been to different places, and I did not plan on spending my career here, that at 40 I said I was out, gone, and I would move and do something different just 'cause you should do that. And I was out at a company—I don't even want to mention it—but a company out west interviewing and had a job offer. And I was sitting down sort of like this with the HR person. And he goes, "We don't know too much about your background and stuff, but if there's anything you'd like to share maybe we can help you a little bit." And at the time I was in a relationship, and I said, "Yeah. My partner would come with. He ..." And I mentioned, "he," and the guy tenses up a little bit. And I go through the whole thing, "So if you have moving assistance and stuff." And he just—it's very similar to the present —he went off on that they had no need to do this, there was no requirement that they do anything, and the company didn't recognize this. And I said, "This interview is over. I'm done. I have no need to do this. I'm happy back at Kent. Kent knows about me, and I have no need to do this." And so I went back and kind of told the people, wrote a letter when I came home, very nice. I didn't burn bridges but, like, we're not doing this. And came back and Bill—I remember I was in the airport with Bill saying, "I'm coming back. I really don't want this job. Are there opportunities for advancement?" And he said, "Well, you know, I'm gonna be stepping down in a year or so." So, yeah, I came back and didn't take that.
And then the only other one that really figured in that way—everybody was fine. I'd been on missions with my now husband and stuff with the president at the time. But it was at a time where Ohio was—it was 2001, because it was before September 11th. It was 2001. And I got a thing from the university, I'm now director of the institute—or I guess I was vice-president—no, I'm still director of the institute—wanting me as part of the university family to donate to the foundation. And then there was no benefits, there was no insurance, there was none of this. And I sent a letter back to the president and provost saying, "I'm very happy here at Kent State and all this stuff but I am not part of your family and you've made it very clear that that's not the case." And I outlined exactly what it was on. And they were good, and they followed up. They called me in the next day and I went over and said, you know, we're really sorry. And Carol was really honest, she goes, "I'm not taking the lead on this. It's not politically where Kent State ... " I said, "I understand, but I'm not donating to you." So I'm happy, we're happy, just don't sent me any more letters like this, like I'm part of your family, 'cause I'm not. You made very clear that I'm not. So different times.
It's amazing what's happened since then. I wouldn’t have predicted at that point in time that that would've happened. So that is probably an important side of things. And I always felt comfortable here. There was never an issue. Although the sciences don't really care.
CRAWFORD: So in your scientific career you didn't feel like it was much of a factor other than the ones that you've mentioned?
WEST: No. No. And the broader thing, along with I wouldn't put up with it, so it was, like, yeah. So, no, never really was.
CRAWFORD: Were you active with the LGBTQ community here?
WEST: Not particularly, no. No. That's kind of interesting. I would be. I think in some ways we were early on being out, so hopefully it had some effect, but, no, I think the only thing I did was there is a new thing in gender studies that I've donated to and helped with and stuff. Yeah, I don't know why, but, no, I haven't.
CRAWFORD: Just asking out of curiosity.
WEST: No. And there's actually an organization mainly more geared to graduate students, gay, in physics, chemistry, the hard sciences and stuff. And I actually tried to—I think it's Out-something. Anyway, but I think I was too old for the demographic at that point in time, but that's OK.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, it's really interesting to hear about. Shifting gears back to the—
WEST: Sure. Sorry. That took you off on a whole different track.
CRAWFORD: Oh, no, no.
WEST: But it's kind of important from a Kent State standpoint, though.
CRAWFORD: Oh, yeah. No, I really appreciate it. Just thinking about, you know, you've joined the Liquid Crystal Institute and you say you came as a senior research fellow. What was that? What was your position?
WEST: Well, the senior research fellow was an untenured, not tenure track, not teaching, just total research position within the institute. And I was very happy with that. I had no intention when I came of becoming a faculty member. In fact, when that opportunity arose in the early '90s when we started the chemical physics program, I could've gone and done that, and I turned that down, actually, at the time. I was more than happy to stay as a senior research fellow and as associate director of the institute. And it was really only through ALCOM and all of that that it became appropriate for my career to become part of the chemistry department. And I don't think there was a major issue at that point. I'd been here long enough, and graduate students and everything.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. So you didn't want to become a faculty member because you wanted to stay focused on research?
WEST: Yeah. And there was the whole tenure process and there was a whole thing that goes with it. And along with it, I taught if I wanted to and actually I didn't much. And most of my stuff was focused either on team-taught stuff or on graduate students.
CRAWFORD: Right. Yeah. So staying focused on research, and you mentioned that you were, at this time—I think you mentioned hired to help with the PDLCs, the polymer dispersed liquid crystals. What was going on with those at the time?
WEST: Well, there was a whole group—Bill Doane was remaking the institute at that point in time, and I think if you interview groups, you'll see that the institute was either going to fade away or become more focused on technology and have a broader mission, probably. And its initial heydays—it needed some reinvigoration and Bill was clearly gonna do that. So he'd taken over as director of the institute, was moving in that direction, had a very strong group that was put together of some stellar—through that early part of the '80s some amazing undergraduate students and graduate students, really. And some of them have done very well. If you look at that group, there's some you may want to interview and have heard about younger than Asad. So there's Greg Crawford, who was one of the ones. He's president of Miami University right now. Joe Whitehead is provost at Bowling Green.
WEST: John Erdmann is CEO of—it escapes me, the name [Hana Microdisplays]. It'll come to me. But a company near here. That whole group, I have a picture I show I did in one of things with all of us up at General Motors and doing research on PDLCs. So Bill had done some initial licensing. I came and, actually, when I was here Bill was in Australia, funny enough, and met my Australian family. But he was on a sabbatical there so was gone for the first few months. And by the time he came back, I had come up with some new ways of making PDLCs.
And I think it was an advantage, and you'll find in the sciences overall that if you have a specific field, you have kind of blinders within that field. And there's nothing magical about it. But I came from a very different perspective. I wasn't liquid crystals; I wasn't a physicist. I'd been very device oriented in my work, so I looked at the PDLCs. I went back to a number of things that I already knew and came up with new ways of making the PDLCs. And by the time Bill got back, I had an example of the new technology on his desk with kind of a patent disclosure and everything else.
WEST: Yeah. So that was in the first few months that had happened. And now, I'd already done some background on liquid crystals and stuff, so I was—and actually that patent issued before the basic patent. So there was a set of patents that came together kind of in a package. And Bill was very good then at marketing this, and I think it's maybe a skill in a time that was ideal for marketing this. So there's a thing called the Society for Information Display. He started doing articles, making presentations, showing this stuff. It was kind of brand new. There was a competing technology, by the way. There's an interesting story that way that Jim Fergason and—that name has probably popped up and—
WEST: Yeah, yeah. And he'd come up with a similar technology and whether our patents were valid or his were valid, and everything else that way ended up being a big question on the way through. Anyway, Bill had moved this. He'd effectively moved it into getting funding from the federal government. And he'd gone through—I'd say there was three projects that led us eventually to what became ALCOM.
And that was happening during the '80s. And so in the early '80s I think it was called NCIPT—terrible acronym—NCIPT, National something or another [National Center for Integrative Photonic Technologies]. But we were joined with a few universities to look at liquid crystals and polymers. And it was the University of Connecticut I know we worked with. I'm not sure all the various ones. It was multi-university and brought some decent funding into the institute which helped with the university, helped with the politics within the university. He'd also convinced them to build a new building which was coming up, but also got General Motors to fund our research. And General Motors, in a brilliant move on Bill's part, and important to kind of realize what he was giving up at this stage—what all of us ended up—he gave it up, but what all of us were giving up at this stage. So 50 percent of any money that came back in after expenses were taken was supposed to go to the inventors for royalty payments.
So we made a license to General Motors where, instead of royalty payments, they funded our research. So he put that seed money—rather than taking the money and running—back into the research program. And then we had a joint project, and we were going to General Motors every couple months to make projects. They were coming down here. That led—General Motors bought Hughes Research, and so we were doing that with Hughes and all of that. And so that went really well, and the work on the PDLCs is going really well. And then we moved on to another DARPA-funded project. I should remember the name of this one, too. But I remember the universities 'cause I pushed this one really hard. So there was Columbia, Caltech, MIT, University of Chicago, and Kent State. And I said, I'll take that group anytime. The fact that we were within that group, as far as doing this. That was NCIPT; that was the National Center for Integrative Photonic Technologies.
And that was a major project that way funded by the Defense Department. There was a key guy at Defense, a guy by the name of Ken Wynn. I think he was with the Navy at the time, and I don't know where he ended up.
CRAWFORD: And you said his—
WEST: Ken Wynn.
CRAWFORD: Wynn. OK.
WEST: Yeah, W-Y-N-N. When you interview Bill, ask him about Ken.
WEST: Ken was a really, really strong supporter of us, Bill and the institute, and thought it was an important key of technology in the United States, and it was. And it ended up being, particularly as the display industry was coming, that we ended up being the university that had invested in this and made the long-term investment. And Bill understood that, that we'd made the long-term investment and it ended up being critically important. And we could stand, um, with any of the top universities in the country and outgun them on this field, and we did. And he had the confidence and ability to do that and just set us up to do that. So when we finished that and were done with that project when the NSF Science and Technology Centers came along, it was just logical to do that.
And the government at that point was starting the United States Display Consortium. And they were recognizing that liquid crystals were a key technology. I think the military was understanding that it was a key technology. And a lot of this stuff is sort of hearsay as far as fact, but I think my understanding was—well, not my understanding. I know that all the displays at that point in time were being made in Japan, basically.
This was the early days of the liquid crystal display. You asked about the industries. The Japanese industries made investments in making liquid crystal displays and making them cheaply and working out the manufacturing processes for doing it. And there is a number of technologies that need to come together even to make a simple liquid crystal display and do that right. And they'd gone from handmade devices that were hugely expensive to mass production and orders of magnitude cheaper in the production of these, and really had done that when the final market that really made billions and billions for companies, the TV on the wall, was still a generation away. And the thing was, they had done this through these incremental growth until the early '90s when the laptop computer came out.
And the laptop computer, that made the only game in town the liquid crystal display. And that made the industry. And Japan was at the right place at the right time 'cause they'd done all the investment from a corporate standpoint. And from an academic standpoint, we were the 800-pound gorilla in the room at Kent State. Go figure.
And so from my standpoint, I've now turned 40, it's 1993, I'm looking at this job and I'm going, why am I leaving the institute? And I pioneered—my job was to deal with the overseas companies. So I was going to Japan four times a year and visiting with the various companies. ALCOM is already funded now at this stage. Yeah, it was just a lot of fun. And so I was trying to bring in various companies, grow our program. It was difficult in the beginning because—it has overtones although not the same—overtones of what's going on with China right now. And at the time, all the major liquid crystal display manufacturers were in Japan and the whole narrative was that they're taking our technology. They were not. They'd done a real good job of using our technology. They were not stealing it; they were licensing it. And it was a different ballgame. And they were playing the same game we were, and they beat us on it. They'd made a long-term investment and fair enough. But in the beginning, we couldn't bring any of the Japanese companies into ALCOM. We couldn't bring any foreign companies into ALCOM. And by the mid-'90s that was—and that was never written. I don't know what would've happened if we had. You know what I'm talking about?
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. I want to get to ALCOM. I think we need to discuss that more—
WEST: Back up a little bit?
CRAWFORD: —'cause I know that's a major part of the LCI in the 1990s and even the early 2000s. Just a couple follow-up questions about this period—
CRAWFORD: —say, in the late '80s when you've come to the LCI before
ALCOM starts. You're talking about some of these projects that are kind of leading in that direction. I think just one sort of background question that might be helpful for us to discuss is going back to PDLCs. What was their application? Why was GM interested in them? And then, I wonder if you could just say a little bit more about the relationship between GM and the LCI? I mean, obviously, GM's providing funding for research but what are they getting in return?
WEST: Mm-hmm. So General Motors had a few things, and actually they figured into ALCOM, but they had a few things that they were looking at liquid crystals for. Number one, so the PDLCs are this technology that doesn't use polarizers, number one. So all the displays that you see today with liquid crystals are polarizer based.
CRAWFORD: Right. OK.
WEST: They go between a scattering, so an opaque and a clear state. Their main use today is in switchable windows. But if you look in the '90s, there was a lot of thought of using them for displays; and continued on the way through. So a lot of the work was marrying the performance characteristics of a PDLC with the driving characteristics of the electronics that are used to make a display. So we were looking to do that. But GM's first thing was for the sunroofs of cars. Just the sunroof that would go scattering and go clear. Add dyes to it, for example. You could add dyes and go from a dark state to a light state. And so there is a lot of heat load in cars. They had a concept car with a Corvette that had the—whatever that roof is called—landau roof or something, I don't know, that comes off that had a PDLC window.
And they were also looking for it for heads-up displays, so on your windshield that would give you—which was thought of as really advanced at the time. And rear windows of cars we were looking at. But just the general science and technology. And another thing, most major companies had a certain amount of the research which was just basic research back then. Bell Labs still existed. All of this was there. And so there was a different culture of research and development. And so they were funding us and had licensed the technology for use in automotive applications, which then took us on to Hughes Research which had done a bunch of stuff that way. There was a really innovative group there that did that. So we became a team and knew that group really well. And some of our graduates were there, and, yeah, it was just a fantastic collaboration.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. The team at Hughes Research, was that a liquid crystal team?
WEST: Yes. Yeah, it was.
CRAWFORD: Oh, OK.
WEST: And you want to go to Malibu. I'm just telling you. There was a great little hotel down on the beach and you got out, visit Hughes Research—I love to go do that. It was a good place to go. I think they've all retired now.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. And then, just another sort of bigger picture question, you mentioned these two projects or this relationship with GM which is bringing in money for research—
CRAWFORD: —and there's also this DARPA-funded project.
CRAWFORD: Would you say those are, like, the two main streams of funding for the LCI at the time?
WEST: We were doing other licensing opportunities around the globe. Asahi Glass in Japan; licensed their technology. I think it was Saint-Gobain in Europe, licensed their technology. There was a company in Texas called Polytronix that licensed. And that was the other thing. I'm still this young guy in these pretty sophisticated meetings on licensing technology and doing the—we didn't have a tech transfer office at the time. We had a legal firm that was helping us, and we were just kind of doing it by the seat of our pants.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. Well, and that was my kind of third question about this period. Thinking about the history of university patenting and so forth which was still not entirely new in the mid-'80s but still—
WEST: Relatively new, yeah.
CRAWFORD: —relatively new, 'cause Bayh-Dole had—
WEST: Just passed.
CRAWFORD: —passed in 1980 and there some universities that had gotten started earlier, Wisconsin-Madison, Stanford and so forth.
WEST: Vitamin D in milk or something? Yeah.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. I just wondered if you could say a little bit more on kind of where was the university at in terms of supporting the work LCI or that you were doing in terms of patenting and technology transfer? They're still kind of figuring things out or ... ?
WEST: I think it's to the president at the time, the relationship with the president with Bill, and that he sorted of trusted him. So it was a guy by the name of Michael Schwartz. And he was a strong supporter on the way through. And so I think at the very top there was an enthusiasm. And also economically it was just such a different time than we're in right now. It was still a time of growth, probably the end of that era for Ohio. We were still looking at increasing student populations and an expanding university rather than do more with less.
So it was a very different time. I think also just at the federal level, yeah, the R&D structure was still very aggressive, I think. And we've gone through some pullback on that if you look at the portion of our GDP that we're putting into research. So there was a lot of opportunities, and it was still kind of a heady time. And there was different structures on how the university invested in the university, probably a more stable funding source. And if you look at just the—I mean, things that wash across the entire university and how I think education was used as more—and it's maybe changing back now, but more a part of the infrastructure, rather than a luxury, and funded that way.
And so, yeah, it was a changing demographic but very different from where we're at right now. So the ability to build a new institute and get funding from the state to do that, that the state is behind having that happen. Yeah, so it was a very different time. And I think the university viewed things very differently, and we were not in an RCM mode, which is how everything is broken down to an individual unit and viewed. And if you do that, research comes out looking very bad. And particularly at someplace like Kent, to be frank. That's just the way it is. I don't know; good or bad, it's just the way it is.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So when you say things were different back then, am I correct to suggest that you're saying that the support for research was more robust?
WEST: Oh, yeah, on all levels, federal, state, local, university, completely. So we were able to go in and—and I did some of this and I did a lot later on—you could go in and do—I'm gonna put in a grant. If I get this grant, it's gonna bring in X millions of dollars for the university, and it'll run for the next four years. I'm going to put into this a position that I will fund off the grant, but you need to pick it up at the end if we get it. It'd be an answer, yes, and then they would do it. Two things, not only yes, but then they'd do it. And the confidence in where the—and it's not even a critique, we're just in such different economic times now from the university standpoint. And I think we were viewed as a jewel in the crown even at that point. It really brought prestige to the university and helped bring—so it helped bring students and help bring high-end faculty, probably more importantly, to the university, which then filters down to the students. Yeah, I think that is an argument that is just going to fall on deaf ears right now.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. Was there also support, though, for faculty to do patenting and seek interactions in industry? 'Cause I know there were some discussions around Bayh-Dole, right, about whether it was appropriate for federally-funded research to be patented.
WEST: Yeah. And I think even then it was still a—you could get hit from both sides. And I don't know that that's over yet as far as doing that. I think the clear thing from the institute was it was unquestioned within the institute that that was going to be rewarded within the institute. And it was within the university.
The other thing that happened—and I learned a lot in this process. So we've now licensed a few technologies. And there's some significant checks that should be coming my way, and they're not. And I pushed Bill and they're not, and I've pushed Bill and they're not. And I'm, like, "You guys promised this, and the money is coming in and I don't see my check." And I said, "I'm gone. You guys made promises and you're not keeping them, and I just don't want to do this anymore. And so unless something comes, I'm done." [laugh] So the next day—I've done this a few times, I guess—and I had a check two days later. It was, like, well, what it was nobody wanted to make a mistake and it was nobody's job to get that done until that point. It was like it never had been communicated down through the system. And that check was more than my year's salary. I mean, you're gonna write that check to a faculty member and then the newspaper's gonna find—who's gonna be responsible for that in the end that we actually did this? And that filtered down through, but only at the point where I was, like, see ya later dudes. I'm not doing this anymore. And I don't think anybody was to blame on that one; do you know what I'm saying?
WEST: In the end, I realized it was just inertia and nobody was going to get rewarded for doing it, but you could get punished if it went wrong. You know what I mean?
CRAWFORD: Right, right.
WEST: But Kent was fine in the end. Yeah. And rewarded down through the structure. If you were in a department trying to get tenure that didn't respect that, that wasn't going to happen.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. It's more difficult.
WEST: The institute had an advantage at that point in time with the different grants in that we could come bearing gifts, and that's harder to do these days. Come to the institute, we have funding for this, we have funding for that. Yeah. But, no, I think from the very beginning the intention was there. There was probably a bit of stumble on the implementation. But then, once it was implemented, it was done like clockwork. And we set up a procedure, it worked, and it's done. And we rewarded people at all levels. A graduate student could easily get a check. And it was viewed as part of your job to do that from Bill's perspective. And he set that attitude and ethic throughout the institute.
CRAWFORD: To do patents?
WEST: Yeah. Yeah. And definitely within ALCOM. I think it played super well in ALCOM. And we can talk more about that later.
CRAWFORD: Sure. And again, I just want to ask just briefly, so to you as an individual in your career, what does patenting mean? I mean, obviously, there's financial remuneration, but does it mean something more than that professionally or ... ?
WEST: Yeah, it does. It's a pretty hard review, number one, professionally, and it goes on my resume. It's things where—I was telling my group today about the first invention and almost welled up emotionally. When you're talking about making it with gelatin and stuff like that out of the supermarket and realizing nobody else had done that before, and that I had a new way to solve a problem. And that was really cool, and I enjoyed that. And I've enjoyed all the way through. And then, demonstrating how it works. I don't know that I've been the—CEO of FITOS. FITOS hasn't done that well and it's still alive, but I don't know for how much longer. But watching Kent Displays, watching AlphaMicron, watching some of the companies come through and make all that happen has been, yeah, really worthwhile.
CRAWFORD: So seeing that industry build up on that foundation of those patentable technologies?
WEST: Somebody's idea that came out of their office and all of a sudden there's 100 employees, and it's pretty cool. And I think Bill was, once again, a pioneer that way in the whole process and very supportive. I think I helped out with some of the policies within the university that made it easier for faculty to do that. And I'll take some credit that way, with helping grease the wheels, so to speak.
CRAWFORD: Was that part of maybe—it's hard for you to speak to why someone else brought you here, but was it your experience in industry that—
WEST: Yep. Bill wanted a young Turk that was outside of the field and brought a new perspective. He also wanted somebody that had worked in lasers, and I had done all of this stuff. I think he was looking for a chemist. And he hired young, which we have lost the—no offense to older guys now that I am one, but he was the sports team analogy of hiring a young team and then building it and waiting a few years for it to—so when we did get to the point of ALCOM, there was a bunch of us young Turks that were ready to put it all out in order to make it happen.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. I want to ask you one more question and then I think we should maybe take a break for a couple of minutes.
WEST: Sure, sure.
CRAWFORD: In a kind of memoir essay that you wrote for the 50th anniversary of the Liquid Crystal Institute that was published by Kent State University in 2015, you talked in that essay about two people that were important to you in your time here.
CRAWFORD: One was Bill Doane, who we've mentioned several times.
CRAWFORD: The other being Elaine Landry, who was hired the year before you came in 1983.
CRAWFORD: And I just wonder if you could say a little bit about what her role was; I think she was the business manager?
WEST: She was the business manager. And Elaine was just no nonsense. She was your hard-nosed business manager. She was Bill Doane's "no," and she kept everything moving and heading forward. She taught me how to write and write proposals, and she would edit a lot of what we were doing. And she had just kind of a basic how to get things done. And she helped me a lot with that, and just kind of who does what, not at the senior level, but who makes things actually work at the university. If you want to get this done, who do you call? And she knew how to make things work, along with she was just mother to all of the graduate students. So she did so much of building the liquid crystal community here. And I think, if you talk to any of the people I mentioned, the students, they'll mention her name.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah.
WEST: Yeah, Elaine was really, really important. And she could be kind of a pain in the ass, but it was good. It was almost always right. So a funny story that way. I'm here, we're in the new building, and they're worried about phone charges. And she wants me to keep a record of phone calls and long distance and who and why and all this other stuff. So I get this memo that I'm supposed to do this. So I unplug my phone and took it up to her office and said, "You obviously think I don't know how to use this, so when I do, I'll come down and make my calls from here. And if you need to get ahold of me, just walk down the hall." [laugh] She went, "Oh, OK. You don't have to do this." So I got my phone back. No, Elaine was great. In fact, I had a dinner for Greg Crawford and his wife Renata, and just as one of our outstanding grads, and made sure Elaine was there for that event and made sure she came back.
CRAWFORD: Oh, that's great.
WEST: Yeah. And she pulled everybody together. She was key.
CRAWFORD: How big was the LCI when you showed up in 1984?
WEST: Not very big at that point. In fact, Bill had let go of a few people that were moved on, and so the core group was Bill—there were some people in the departments. There was Dave Johnson and Vern Neff. A guy by the name of Dave Allender who was chair of physics for a while, now has retired out west. But the senior staff, like the senior research fellow staff, there was a guy by the name of Adriaan de Vries but he moved out into administration at that point. And there was one more that I replaced when I came in. Well, and then there was Glenn Brown, who was still around but really not functioning at that point.
WEST: And Sardari [Arora]—I can't remember his last name. I'm sorry. That's terrible. And, yeah, so there was a few staff. Al Saupe, of course, was part of the group. And then, faculty from the various departments. But then we started adding people. Through that process, I talked about, if I get this grant, I'm gonna hire this guy. So Peter Palffy came onboard, Phil Bos came onboard, Oleg Lavrentovich. Yeah, a lot of the next generation, and hired young at that point.
CRAWFORD: Right. But it sounds like it was a fairly close-knit group.
WEST: It was, yeah. Yeah. And with Bill as the unifying lead behind all of that. I think he was key for everybody coming through. And to be frank, I think it was a hard transition when I took over, politically and for a number of different reasons.
CRAWFORD: Right. And as a research fellow, did you have your own projects that you were doing, your own project leader, and that sort of thing?
WEST: Yeah, yeah. I brought in money and was taking care of myself. And I think that was probably one of the key things in turning the senior research fellows into faculty, we were all probably paying at least half our salary on external grants, and we were on a 12-month rather than a 9-month appointment. And turning into faculty that all changed, and incentive to do that kind of went away. And I think that was an unfortunate in some ways turn of events.
CRAWFORD: [laugh] Great. So why don't we take a five-minute break, and we can resume.
WEST: Sounds great. Yep. [pause in recording]
CRAWFORD: OK. So we've been talking about the late '80s leading up to the early '90s and you've mentioned ALCOM several times, which refers to the NSF Science and Technology Center for Advanced Liquid Crystalline Optical Materials, which was NSF-funded starting in 1991, I believe. I just wonder if you could tell us a little bit first about what ALCOM was; what was it, what were its objectives and so forth?
WEST: So NSF in the late '80s, early '90s was looking at these science and technology centers as funding these large centers, ideally multi-university and including industry that then would work on an important topic of the day. And liquid crystals was a logical one at that point. And so Kent, through the leadership of Bill Doane, put a proposal together, along with about six others in the state, as I recall, which was fun at that point, too, because one of the things with ALCOM was getting state support for that. And the state was very generous in doing that. Another sign of the times as far as having funding to match and all of that. So we put together—and "we," this is really Bill Doane put together a collaboration between us and Case Western Reserve and the University of Akron, the University of Akron being the polymer program there.And Case Western also having some in macro-molecular science and in physics some significant background in liquid crystals. So that was the academic collaboration within the state of Ohio that we put together.
And then, a number of companies that came to support that that we had. And Bill was really good at building this corporate support for what happened. I'd also say that we were coming off this National Center for Integrative Photonic Technology having been successful and a track record that way and working with some good names that way, and built our reputation through doing that, along with having had a number of NSF grands and so well established. And I think we were with the PDLCs and a lot of the work that way looking at it being really innovative and moving technology from the laboratory into the marketplace.
So having a track record of already done a lot of things that NSF was hoping we would do. And it was a rigorous, really tough process. I forget how many hundreds of proposals that came down to maybe 25 or something like that for site visits, and then the final—I think it may have been 12 that was funded across the nation. And we were the only one in Ohio, which was really kind of cool, 'cause the big guys did compete, too. Sorry. [laugh] We only gloated a little on that.
CRAWFORD: Right. [laugh]
WEST: And so it worked out really well. And Bill established that program. Once we had the funding, there was just a ton of opportunities at that point. And we built the industrial part. I was responsible for doing the industrial partnership program and building a lot of that among the universities, and putting the policies together on how we'd operate, working with the tech transfer offices at the various universities, and then working with the industrial partnership program itself.
We also built the resource facility. Initially, that was in the other building with a clean room. But then, it also led to the building of this building, 'cause clearly we were outliving that building in 10 years. And so got the funding in order to build this building and make that happen, which we did. And the other thing that happened, and I'll take some credit for bringing in the corporate donations and foundation support that came to building the clean room facility, the Samsung auditorium, all this sort of stuff. I was also kind of leading the development of the building, so I was playing the second in command at that point but had that kind of my agenda to move that forward.
And at that point was doing a lot in Asia, even though—in fact, that was kind of my thing, because of the travels I'd done and everything else, going to Japan and going to Korea wasn't out of the box for me at all at that point. So I was doing a lot of that. I actually did a sabbatical in Japan during that time, I think '94, working with one of the grand old guys of liquid crystals, a guy by the name of Kobayashi. And I, yeah, spent a semester with him. That was fantastic, so it worked out really well. And built some of the corporate engagement that we had over time, and he was really good at providing introductions to the various companies. And so we were able to bring in a number of donations into the company, so if you look outside the clean room there's a list of companies and stuff that way. Also I'd been successful with the Keck Foundation at getting funding which, yeah, outside of California I think we'd gotten the largest Keck Grant at the time.
CRAWFORD: And what was the Keck Foundation?
WEST: You may have heard of the Keck telescope and stuff. It's a foundation that supports basic high-risk research and development. And I was pushing at the time doing work actually with a faculty member over in chemistry. Her and I put a grant in to together, what's called XPS, and we were looking at how liquid crystals interact on surfaces, which ended up being kind of an important thing for the display industry at the time, but also this equipment was fairly new. And I have to say Julia did most of the groundwork on that first proposal.
CRAWFORD: Julia ... ?
WEST: Julia Fulghum was her name—is still her name. But she left and went to the University of New Mexico and is still there, as far as I know. Yeah, we worked closely together. So she got the XPS equipment, we did some joint research together on that, and then I got another grant that brought in some equipment that's in the clean room these days for doing plastic substrates.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So the point of ALCOM was to just foster this industry, academic interactions?
WEST: And do basic research.
CRAWFORD: And do basic research.
WEST: Yeah, yeah. And I think the important thing—and the articulation of how this worked, and I think that was one of the things maybe I didn't do it, I more articulated it, was that there's no division between basic and applied research. That's a continuum. And it was kind of a fallacy that had been put in place. And I think one of the things ALCOM did was actively acknowledge that, in that you couldn't sit in either camp quietly and not deal with the other. And also it was, I think, a unique combination of state funding, which funded the ability to protype and develop new technology, with the NSF funding that we did mainly for the lab type of research. And along with the Ohio Board of Regents had grants then for equipment, and we had a major, huge grant from OBR that ran for multiple years associated with this. And one of the important things that, when I talked about running around with gifts, so if you were in one of the departments working in liquid crystals or part of ALCOM and wanted to buy a piece of equipment and wanted to put a grant into NSF, I'd provide matching money for it. You'd come and I would look at it and say, yeah, you don't need to go to the—you can come to the institute, and we'll take care of it. And I'd provide the match for doing that. And then, that faculty member is now involved in the institute. The other thing that came with that, though, along with if you were part of ALCOM there was $125,000 a year back then that went to your research program that you had.
And you reported, well, effectively to me and the group, or to Bill Doane in the beginning. But then strings came along with that. If you wanted to be part of that program, continue with that, and you had some interesting research that might have an application, you need to put your student on working on building a prototype. It's great to write the paper but take the next step. And it wasn't like you've got to prove to me to take the next step, we'd be saying, you gotta take the next step. Here's a clean room. You don't have to write a proposal to anybody. Go
And that really made a huge difference. And I think it was the magical part of ALCOM that hasn't been reproduced in many places anywhere, forget about here or anywhere else. To have that freedom of the money to be able to do that. You had to report every year, so don't get me wrong, NSF was a—but what was surprising was OBR and ODOD, you know, the Ohio Department of Development, took NSF's review as their review.
CRAWFORD: Oh, I see.
WEST: So, in fact, I did fight that, because ODOD at that point wanted me to report separately, do a separate name, and I said, "If you do this, you're gonna create an—and I'm not gonna..." If NSF isn't good enough for you, if you want to put something in the review or want something else, but, no, it's ALCOM. It sits within this. And you need to give me the—and they did that. They did do it. And, yeah, so that was huge. That was huge. Whether it was KDI or AlphaMicron. I don't know if you're interviewing Bahman [Taheri].
CRAWFORD: Yes, I will be.
WEST: Yeah. Any one of those, come in and use the facility. We did great grantsmanship together in the early 2000s of joint research projects. And another one with the university at that point. And there was a guy that was the chief financial officer at the time by the name of—it'll come back to me. Anyway, he's down at the University of Miami right now, as far as I know. God, names and age, it's just terrible. But anyways, there was a grant from the state that I could do with the companies. We had to do some match. And part of it was starting new companies and making things happen. We had an old bus garage. Kent State had gotten rid of the bus garage and PARTA was gonna take it over, right?
WEST: So Dave—it'll come. The next name will come in a second. So I called up Dave and I said, "Dave, I'm writing the proposal to ODOD. I want to use the bus garage. Can you give me an estimate? Hey, can I use the bus garage?" "I don't think there's much going on there. Yeah." Dave Kramer.
WEST: And said yes. And I said, "Well, I'm gonna put in the proposal. Is that OK? If I get it, I'm gonna need the bus garage." He goes, "Yeah, that's fine." And that was it. Hung up the phone and I wrote the proposal up, put it in, it was accepted at the research office, and we got it. And I called up Dave and said, "We got the grant." And then the answer was, "Oh, yeah. I remember. Sure." And it was done. Now, we could argue about—but that level of doing business and being able to match funds and brought in a considerable amount of money made a home for AlphaMicron, made a research park out of an old bus garage, and not a huge amount of investment. And so you were able to do those kind of deals.
CRAWFORD: Right. Yeah. So it sounds like you're saying that part of what was special about ALCOM beyond the kind of collaborations, I guess, it facilitated between these different universities and also corporations or companies that are part of the group, but also the kind of flexibility to take risks and be inventive and the financial resources to do those things.
WEST: Yes, to do it. And not huge risks, but if you're a professor now and want to go do a prototype, where do I get the money to do that? No. Go do it. Here's the money. And it wasn't a lot of money. It was more in infrastructure that was there to make it happen. The infrastructure is still there. It needs to be refurbished. Whether there's the funding to do that I don't know. But, yeah, and at the time so AT&T had a lab for manufacturing liquid crystal displays. They got out of the business. Who'd they give it to? They gave it to us. So I moved a tractor-trailer out there with $2 million worth of equipment ready to go in our clean room facility. AT&T just called up and just goes, "Would you like this?" The answer is, "Yes, I would like this." Motorola gave equipment. There was donations from various companies. Major companies came in. Dai Nippon Printing did an education clean room.
So the foreign companies had to donate a quarter of million dollars to get in the door. So you could do that in two ways. So if I was to ask—all right, you can do this two ways. You can give me $50,000 a year for five years and I just keep the money. It's going into the program. I'm telling you you're investing in the infrastructure you're gonna have access to and that's why you need to do that 'cause the federal government didn't put in money for you to come to my institute. I'm just sorry. And they got that. And they were OK. But I'll tell you, if you give me a quarter of a million upfront, I'll name something after you, and you can put it on the door, and we'll work together and make that happen.
So that happened a few times, too. Samsung Auditorium, Dai Nippon Printing Teaching Laboratory. Others did the $50,000, but that went straight into a foundation account. And then we competed for eminent scholars, by the way. There was an eminent scholar program in the state. Won both times on those to get eminent scholars that put money into an endowment into the university to make all that happen.
CRAWFORD: And who was hired on this?
WEST: The first one was Jonathan Selinger, which was one. And I had—so I had led this one. So downstairs in review process, I had people from Akron and Case Western Reserve saying that the state should fund this at Kent State. And so Jonathan came on that one. That was at the end of ALCOM. And then there was a second one that Oleg Lavrentovich got. And they brought in Torsten [Hegmann]. And money—yeah. I actually redirected to the institute when I was vice-president of research.
CRAWFORD: So with ALCOM and, like you said, this kind of false division between basic and applied, and I think you're really getting these interesting synergy between academia and industry and so forth—
WEST: We had an annual retreat, by the way, which was fantastic and brought in all the companies. And we did symposia that were by invitation only.
CRAWFORD: And a similar group of—
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah.
WEST: It wasn't that hard. If you asked to be invited, we'd probably invite you, although a company, if you weren't putting money up, you probably weren't gonna come to one of those.
CRAWFORD: Right. I'm just curious about the research that's going on. What's driving that? Is it sort of the practical needs of companies? They're saying, hey, we have this problem [we need] solved. Is it that the researchers are following up basic research questions and then applications are becoming available?
WEST: Both. Both. And you certainly could be a researcher just following curiosity-based research and to not do that is crazy. And I was real clear on that right from the beginning and so was Bill. And, yeah, a researcher that was only doing that would have a hard time staying at ALCOM through the whole thing. Not interacting with companies or talking. I'd say to be just purely basic research and have a line that I don't do that. That wasn't gonna happen.
CRAWFORD: This may be a bit of a silly question, but were there ever conversations about conflict of interest or anything like that?
WEST: Oh, yeah, yeah, definitely. And that's an important one. I think one of the things we did on the way through—so with the company, conflict of interest, and this ends up being reading the Ohio Revised Code and the university being in the right place. 'Cause if you read the Ohio Revised Code, you could read it to mean that you can't do any consulting or work outside the university in your area of expertise. It doesn't read that. I forget the exact—it does not read that.
What we decided to define the Ohio Revised Code and the lawyers in the university agreed, was that you could not do work outside the university in your scope of work, which was defined within your interactions—your workload statement or anything else, proposals that you'd written, anything else that was your scope of work within the university. What you were paid to do within the university.
And you have no business taking that and claiming that on the outside. But your area of expertise, please, that's crazy. Who's gonna hire me for something I'm not an expert in? That makes no sense at all. And so, number one, we were able to do that. And the other thing was just to have very simple policies at the time. And this is still evolving, but the conflict of interest was all based on transparency, and it was based on the fact that if you were gonna go out and work for a company, if you were gonna go outside—while full time at the university if you were gonna start a company, you needed to disclose to institute chair or if I was VP of research your chair what you're doing, why you're doing it, and that they know. There was a pretty stark line of involving graduate students in that process in that you could not be the sole advisor on a graduate student that any whiff that had to do with an independent company or something on the outside. You would need to bring in an independent faculty member that that student could go to as an independent whatever that watched what was going on.
So transparency was the main thing. And within the institute I don't think there ever was a major—what was funny was, I'd rather not mention names, but there was a graduate student that had a problem, and you might talk to—never mind. I'm not even going to mention anybody at that—but wrote to Janet Reno at the time and wrote to—and we're in the middle of ALCOM—wrote to the and they took it seriously and they came here, looked through all the paperwork and the policies and stuff. This is fine. Go live long and prosper. So not only did we do it but were seriously reviewed and the university stood behind it. Yeah, come in, have a look, see what's up. Here's what they wrote. Here's the thing. Here's the company. Go talk to anybody you want. They went and did the whole thing and went, this is perfect; you're fine.
CRAWFORD: Wow. When did that happen approximately?
WEST: Late '90s would be my guess. And that has been a clarifying moment since of why you do this. From a faculty member standpoint, you're protecting yourself from unfounded accusations that, if you haven't got the paperwork and haven't done your—and it's one of the reasons of disclosure. So I don't know if you do a grant—you'll run into it now. There's a series of questions that are there. That wasn't the case then. It was you're supposed to kind of figure this out. That was one policy that was really important. The other one is, you're gonna start a company, you want to go start a company, come in with me, I'd like to start a company, SBIR [Small Business Innovation Research program], any grant, you didn't have to work full time for that company. There's no way you're gonna do your job here and do that job and make everything work unless you're really lucky. Can we do a leave? Should you? But you're gonna ask some guy that's late '30s, early '40s, has kids in school, going to college, whatever, mortgage, you're gonna say, all right, I'm gonna give up a job that I've got tenure in and go jump to this company and say goodbye to you guys. It's, like, no, he's not gonna do that. That's crazy. Give him a leave of absence. Don't pay him but give him a leave—keep the salary. And we did that a few times with faculty that left, started companies. One left permanently. Others have come back. But to have a liberal policy to do that. The other thing I didn't do, I don't know about other departments, I asked faculty not to take 100 percent leave of absence because I didn't want them to leave their graduate students. I didn't want them to leave their lab.
And so take a 75 percent leave of absence or whatever, 80 percent I'm fine, but keep a foothold here and keep involved. And so we did that also. But it led to really—the resource facility, the ethic of if you've got an idea go make a prototype; here's the money, you don't need to do that. We were ranking up with Stanford for spinoff companies per research dollar in.
CRAWFORD: Really? Wow.
WEST: Yeah. We ranked fourth in the country for a few years. Yeah, 'cause we were spinning off quite a few companies. I mean, if you're at Stanford, they're spinning them off all the time. But it worked really well, and I think throughout the institute people would say that that's one of the things that happened with the institute. And probably something that's faded with the matching money that we used to have. So I became very involved through the institute and everything else with regional and state politics, and I became very involved with a group, NorTech, and now is Team NEO up in Cleveland. Lady by the name of Dorothy Baunach actually at the time.
This will give you another idea of Kent State and when you get to a certain point—I wanted a leave of absence. I wanted to leave, and I wanted to go up to NorTech and I wanted to establish something called Flex Matters, because I thought we had an opportunity to do flexible displays and flexible devices and do that in Northeast Ohio. And the university let me do that. NorTech picked up my salary. I left and started that, and it's done OK. It hasn't done bad. The AlphaMicrons and Kent Displays are definitely involved with that. John Erdmann and—God, I can't remember the name of that—anyway.
CRAWFORD: But NorTech was a company?
WEST: Economic development agency in Northeast Ohio.
CRAWFORD: Oh, economic development agency.
WEST: And it's turned into Team NEO now. It's gone through some reiterations and stuff. The reason I say that is within the group—so I was up there doing that and during that time Dorothy Baunach, who was running NorTech, put together the leaders of Northeast Ohio and it was people that had done things like ALCOM. There was another guy that did brain stimulation, a whole thing out of the Cleveland Clinic. And there was about 10 of us that sat down, and we talked about what was needed. And we were going to [do] a grant to the Cleveland Foundation to give us funding to do—I'd explained about what had happened within ALCOM and the magic of that, and everybody went, that's it, that's what we need.
And the whole thing—which there wasn't a proposal process. There was no activation energy barrier to get it started. And I said if I had this ability, it would really change—the foundation gave us some money but then we had to do a proposal process and then they wanted to review it. Then they wanted to put venture capitalists—and it brought people in having to write proposals, review, and not trusting the leader of that—now, should we report every year? Yes. Should you review every year? But if you add this proposal process, it just changes the dynamic. You got three classes to teach, and we want you to go do a proposal and it's gonna be reviewed and we'll let you know, and oh, you got a presentation.
CRAWFORD: Right, yeah. It adds a lot more complexity.
WEST: Yeah. And it changes how far you've gotta go along and how excited you've gotta be before you are able to do that. And so a lot of people just, no, I'll move over and do this. I'm not doing that.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I just want to turn a little bit and think about what you're doing in terms of your career in the '90s. So you become associate director in 1990 and you're in that position 'til '96. And so that would've been into the early years of the ALCOM.And it sounds like you were pretty involved in the administrative side, building industrial collaborations, writing these policies about technology transfer and stuff. Are you still doing research at that time, or have you shifted over?
WEST: Oh, yeah, yeah, definitely. I was working on PDLCs. I also was on the technology that evolved into Kent Displays. So some of the early stuff, some of the basic patents that Kent Displays is based on was out of research I was doing at that point in time.
CRAWFORD: They're bistable cholesteric?
WEST: Cholesteric, yeah. And very similar to what had happened before. So Bill had done the initial bistable cholesteric stuff, and then I'd looked at it and added a twist to it. And, oh, you can also do this way. Same thing that happened with the PDLCs. Yeah. And it was just kind of a follow up and a bit of a stumble, actually, but it worked out OK. So I did that. I was doing a lot of work on surfaces stuff. Yeah. We looked at particle work. So there's a lot of different things I was doing at that point.
CRAWFORD: What was it like trying to balance doing research and playing an administrative role?
WEST: You definitely wouldn't want to start from scratch. You need a good team.
CRAWFORD: [laugh] You need a good team?
WEST: You need a good team, and you need a good postdoc. If you haven't got a postdoc, if you haven't got a good lab leader, you're never gonna be able to do that. And to fund that ended up being really important on the way through. How I negotiated that in the process, and I'll pat myself on the back on this one, a lot of administrators would go and ask the university to support a postdoc and I never did that. I said, I want my overhead. I want you to give me the overhead on my grants and I'll take care of it. So if I'm not producing, no overhead, I don't have any money. But any grant that I'm on, the proportion of the grant that I have, I want the overhead from that grant to support my research. And they did it. And so it ended up being a self-perpetuating—and it gave me a slush fund to work with. Yeah. And it ended up in faculty incentive, so they put it into my faculty incentive account, or any salary I recovered.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. Wow. So in '97 you become director of Liquid Crystal Institute.
WEST: I did.
CRAWFORD: How did that come about? Was that something you were aspiring to?
WEST: Yeah. To be frank, I had talked about going out and looking for a job. And Bill was saying, "I think I'm gonna retire in a couple years." And he'd already done the bistable cholesterics and was looking at getting Kent Displays. He said, "You could compete for that job." He certainly didn't have even the power to do that. And so I thought, oh—it was sort of like the patent thing. Yeah, I'll come back to the institute. That's fair enough. And looking at where I was going and what was happening out there, I'm glad I didn't go. And why would I leave the institute at that point? It's the place to be at this time. Yeah. I was traveling the world and it was—yeah, doing everything I kind of enjoyed doing.
CRAWFORD: Right. When you say, "looking at what's going on out there I'm glad I didn't go," could you say a little bit more about that?
WEST: Yeah. I think major companies have become more and more focused on applied research and I don't think they're supporting the broad-based research efforts that are going to become more and more narrow that way. And so the company I was looking to work for, yeah, I'm glad—and California has never been a place, when I look at places I'd like to end up—it's probably not Ohio either. We talk about Hawaii or Australia or whatever, but California has never been one of the places. And so it was in Southern California, which is not in LA itself, but not my style.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So when you take over as director, what are you thinking about in terms of the future of the Liquid Crystal Institute or things that need to happen or goals or anything like that?
WEST: One of the things that happened was, getting everything done, getting the negotiations with the university was actually at one of the annual retreats where the announcement was finally made. And a lot of it had to do with NSF insisted that the director be a faculty member. So I had to get a faculty appointment and everything else. So all that had to be put together. So now I'm at this annual retreat. It's now announced that I'm the new director, and I've got to come make a presentation on what is ALCOM and what is my—just answer that question.
And I describe pretty much what I just described, that ALCOM is, number one, about advanced liquid crystal and optical materials, but we also look at problems from a number of different perspectives. We bring teams together to work at multidisciplinary problems and really bring a unique perspective. We continue to do basic curiosity-based research, but we also follow that to its logical conclusions if it leads, and we work closely with industry, and we do that well. To define past that, the only conversation we had at that point in time was—there was some other technologies coming up in displays other than liquid crystals, although it wasn't clear even then that liquid crystals were going lead the display technology, but also did we want to work on light-emitting diodes or other technologies that were in the area? And so we had a really basic discussion, are we a liquid crystal institute that happens to be working in displays and making all our money, or are we really a display institute that happens to just focus on liquid crystals? That was a really basic question, but the answer ended up being really important. And we decided that we were a liquid crystal institute that, at the moment, happened to be working on displays. And that we would continue that liquid crystal emphasis. And that was our claim to fame, not displays.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. So was that decision of emphasis, was that then again kind of putting the emphasis more on basic research rather than applied, 'cause I could imagine a kind of displays orientation, it sounds more applied to me, at least, whereas liquid crystals sounds more about understanding materials?
WEST: Well, even the optical materials, whether it wanted to be optical materials wasn't necessarily where liquid crystals ends, and it certainly doesn't end—so I put it as we were like piranha at a feeding frenzy with the display industry. We were at the right place, right time. Everything was there. Let's go after it, and we did. And I think we did a good job of it. And other than not having—if there had ever been a significant domestic display industry, we'd still be riding high. And the fact that we could not—and through all the efforts of the government and everything else not establish a domestic display industry was, yeah, huge. It came close in the late '90s, by the way.
CRAWFORD: Oh, yeah?
WEST: Yeah. There were some foreign companies but looking to set up manufacturing in the United States. And I was pushing really hard that it be in Ohio. And I'd been to corporate headquarters of some of the major companies and they came and saw me and read me the riot act and told me it wouldn't be in Ohio.
CRAWFORD: Wow. So when you say there wasn't a significant display industry, are you essentially saying manufacturing didn't develop here?
WEST: And there was a push. There was United States Display Consortium. There was a company called OIS [Ovonics Imaging Systmes] up in Michigan outside of Detroit that was gonna do active matrix displays for—the big one at that time was the aircraft industry, the flat panel displays for the aircraft. And there was a company called Panel Vision that did displays in Arizona. There was some local manufacturing. There was manufacturers that did the small displays that were going into aircraft cockpits only. I think ADS, Aeronautics Display Systems. I don't even know if they still exist. I did some work for them at the time, and they were part of our initial consortium. But, no, there was never—now, some companies played really well in it. I mean, if you look at Corning, did fantastic making the glass. 3M does a lot of the material-based stuff that's in the industry. Some of the equipment that's made was here, but as far as the manufacturing, didn't happen, never did, never did. You had to go to Asia to get that done.
And there was a big thing 'cause the military was building aircraft that they wanted the displays in the aircraft that worked well. And I don't think the Japanese manufacturers were very interested in working with our military and so that was a problem at the time. I don't know how that's been solved but obviously it's been solved. But, yeah, there was a big push to have a domestic US manufacturing base and it didn't happen.
CRAWFORD: It just didn't materialize. Hmm.
CRAWFORD: So ALCOM continues 'til 2002?
WEST: By the way, I'm going to follow up on that.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, sure.
WEST: It's too easy to say it just didn't materialize. There's some lessons to be learned from that that I don't think we have.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. What do you think those are?
WEST: Well, I think the American industry was arrogant and thought it controlled a lot more than it did. I think it's the lessons we've been learning harder and harder the last couple decades. But this focus on short-term return from the manufacturing base makes no sense at all, and it's probably been relearned over and over again as it's moved to—China is now the major manufacturer of LCD panels and OLEDs and stuff, even though the major manufacturers are still Korean and Japanese. But, yeah, the locations are someplace there. And that will probably change over the next few years, too. And liquid crystals from a display standpoint, they're still the bulk, but the interest from a research perspective is definitely in OLEDs and other technologies. LCD is a mature technology.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. So what would you say were, say, the most important achievements of ALCOM? Are there particular technologies that came out of those collaborations or lines of research?
WEST: That's a really good question. I think we pulled a team together, did a lot of the basic research. I think probably some of the major things are the spin-off companies that have come out of it. We would've hoped that one of them would've gone major. And actually one of them sort of did. CoAdna ended up going public but then moved back to Taiwan and was funded out of that.
But a lot of that research was done here. I think it's made an infrastructure that should move on from displays into a number of new areas. You asked about when I was vice-president of research, I was asked to do a review of our doctoral programs and where to invest. And one of them was in the overlap of biology and liquid crystals. And I think that's huge. I think it's an area that they were looking at when I first came to the institute. And then, because we've turned into this feeding frenzy of displays, we kind of let go for a while. One of the spin-off companies was out of that, MicroDiagnosticsthat's looking at ways of detecting antigens and antibodies. And, wow, this will set the stage how long ago that was. That was 20 years ago when that came out. Because then the whole thing was, can they detect anthrax in the air right after the 9/11 attacks and everybody was sending anthrax around.
CRAWFORD: Sure. Yeah.
WEST: Yeah. But this biodetection, what if you had just a little sensor for COVID, anything that way that you would be able to put in but have—'cause the liquid crystal is an excellent transducer of one thing into another. And so you can have a binding that happens with an antibody and the antigen but then is multiple thousands of times in a liquid crystal material.
So you have an amplification process. You don't have to grow the bacteria; it'll see it instantly and you can have an instant response. So it's stuff I'm doing now, looking at. And I think just has huge potential. Biological membranes, the membrane around a nerve cell is basically a liquid crystalline structure. And a lot of the properties are liquid crystal based. All the cell membranes are basically liquid crystalline. And so I think there's huge untapped opportunities that way. We're looking at—I just gave my group a pep talk on putting liquid crystals in fibers. So get away from the display thing and start looking in different areas. And it's an entire phase of matter. And the one thing that I think may be over now is the idea that we were a display institute, and the LCD is old hat and therefore why are you here?
CRAWFORD: Right. Yeah.
WEST: Yeah, that's crazy. That's crazy thinking. So I think there's huge opportunities that way. And it's gonna be another generation to do that, but I think some of the underpinnings are there, and certainly the infrastructure is here to make that happen.
CRAWFORD: Right, right. So your time as director of Liquid Crystal Institute ends in 2003, a year after ALCOM. And before we move to talking about what you've been doing since then, I'm just curious to ask you about—thinking about this period from, say, the late '80s and into the '90s, one thing that happens, of course, is '89 the Berlin wall falls, the Cold War is over.
WEST: Tiananmen Square.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, Tiananmen Square. And the end of the Cold War was somewhat of a watershed moment in many ways for the world. And there's some discussion—
WEST: You've met with Oleg.
CRAWFORD: [laugh] Well, yeah.
WEST: Well, it's directly related.
CRAWFORD: OK. So, yeah, I mean, I was curious to ask you if, just thinking about that transition, what did it mean in terms of doing science or American science with Liquid Crystal Institute?
WEST: There was a cadre of excellent liquid crystal science and technology in the former Soviet Union. Bill Doane went on a thing funded by the military to go through the former Soviet Union and meet with those people and give an evaluation of what it was. And so the fact that they would come and ask him to go on this international trip and go through the institutes and stuff, as a result of that, yeah, Oleg [Lavrentovich] applied—this is the funniest thing—Oleg applied for the job. We had one of these positions that Bill had gotten through the grants and stuff early on, probably through ALCOM. And so we advertised for this. We get this thing from this guy in Kiev, and he just looks really spectacular, and we want to interview him. And he's at a conference in Miami and we wanted to bring him up. And I got a note that I had to call the State Department to get permission for him to travel from Miami to the institute. And I said, you want me to call the—seriously? And I forget where Bill was. He was out of town or whatever. So I had to call the State Department, and it amazed me they knew what I was talking about, got to the right person real quickly, and they approved it and Oleg came up for the interview.
And then I had a big program with Kiev. We did a lot of research collaborations. There's a whole cadre of students that came out of the Kiev group. It was huge, huge. And I think also a humbling experience when the gates opened up and we realized how much work and the quality of work that was done there. Not so much from the commercialization side. And one of the early books I read, one of the best books I read early on was by a Russian by the name of Blinov. That still is kind of my bible.
CRAWFORD: And that was a book on ... ?
WEST: Magneto-optics and electro-optics of liquid crystals. And it just covered everything. I don't think I've ever met him. But I had a lot of work in Kiev, and one of those postdocs that worked in my lab who's now a faculty member out at University of Colorado was from Kiev. And through Yuriy, Yuriy Reznikov, one of my great friends and pals and stuff. So, yeah, no that was huge. That was huge.
CRAWFORD: So you're saying that with the end of the Cold War these kind of interactions and collaborations sort of across the Iron Curtain, so to speak, that didn't exist, now that that is not there anymore, is opening up?
WEST: Yeah. Huge. Huge difference. That was a little bit different 'cause there was some that was more accessible than others, so Tony Jákli out of Budapest in Hungary, for example. So the institute is, yeah, kind of populated with that. I don't know whether Torsten was—I don't think he was East German. Anyway ...
WEST: But, yeah, just that was huge. That was huge across the board. And a number of people, friends that I have now that we just didn't interact with before that. And the literature was kind of separated. Chem Abs is a prime example. A lot of the Russian stuff wasn't covered, so I think they knew more about what we were doing than we knew about what they were doing. It was fun traveling again, watching Kiev change. It was just magnificent.
CRAWFORD: So that was someplace you were visiting fairly regularly?
WEST: I went to Kiev fairly regularly. We ended up getting a grant out of—I ended up getting a grant out of NSF that funded me to go there and them to come here. I actually looked at starting a company out of Kiev, 'cause things were so cheap to do there. I thought I will do the research and development in Kiev, and this will all work. And we had some investors and stuff. So we met on their private plane in the KSU airport, and they were seriously looking at doing it. And it ended up being just getting money in and out of the Ukraine was—
CRAWFORD: Oh, yeah.
WEST: And I didn't appreciate it at that point in time, although everybody was getting shaken down in the airport. I don't know why I didn't realize what was going on. I was pretty naïve. That wasn't going to happen.
CRAWFORD: [laugh] Right, right. So I wanted to ask you another kind of question about this time period or actually really in the '80s. So again in this sort of memoir essay that you wrote in 2015, you used this great phrase. You talked about "valley of death" that separated academia and the marketplace in the 1980s. And I just was wondering if you could explain what you meant by that, and if you feel that—how that has changed since then?
WEST: I think there's been an acknowledge of the valley of death. I don't know that it's ever—people talk about it now fairly regularly since Bayh-Dole and stuff. And it was kinda coming up in the late '80s that there was this valley of death in innovation that—how do you move this from the laboratory to the marketplace? And it was something that I think Bill just intuitively understood, and because of the general support of the institute we just did. And there's a couple of valleys of death. There's not just one. There's a couple of valleys of death. Not even on something minor in the laboratory and you can publish it in Advanced Materials or something.
Good. And you'll write something. Now you write something at the end about all the applications. Even then you probably wouldn't have even written about what the potential applications were. Now you'd write about that. The next step is to make a more effective prototype and show it to the world and take it to Society for Information Display and show it or take it to these different conferences. And that's a valley of death. And that's what ALCOM supported was that next step. It was Nike, just go do it.
CRAWFORD: So it's a valley of death because there wasn't an ethos of talking about applications, there wasn't support for prototypes, is that what you're saying?
WEST: Even if there was, it required you to do X, Y, and Z and go through a proposal process and wait for six months for an answer before you could do it and you've moved on to another project by then. And the graduate student's gone. And, yeah, it's, like, no, go do it tomorrow. Go do it tomorrow. Go make one. You want to make—make it, please. And you need some equipment? Tell you what, here's the equipment. And what do you need? If it's under 10K we'll talk. And we've got the facilities. Just go do it. Yeah. And that valley of death I think disappeared. In fact, it became push it down the hill. You have to go do this. And by the way, it'll end up in the ALCOM annual report. You'll get kudos for doing it. Why don't you give a presentation at the next symposium where all our invited companies are gonna watch you do it? And why don't you write a patent? You know, I wrote a patent. There's somebody that'll help you do that over here. We can show you how to do that. And then when you do the patent, what I'll do is I'll send it out to our member companies, 'cause what our member companies get is a first right of refusal to license any of our patents.
So now, instead of writing a patent and it just sits out there, I now send it to 30 companies, each are paying $10,000 a year to be part of ALCOM, and I'm telling them, you've got a real short window here if you want to license this. Get in touch if you do. And by the way, send me a check for $2,000 just to hold your place. So not a lot of a money, and you don't get that back. And then go talk to the people up there. So ALCOM would do that initial—and then we'd walk away. And it happened at all three universities, licensing opportunities with a faculty member that had come up with new technologies and ones that started new companies. So one of the ones in Akron did really well that way, too. Steven [Chuang] and—God, this is terrible. I'll come up with the name again. It'll come up in a little bit.
CRAWFORD: OK. Yeah, yeah. So it sounds like one of the things ALCOM did was address this kind of valley of death because it created—I don't know if an incentive structure would be the appropriate word for it, but a space or a way in which—
WEST: It created an ethic.
CRAWFORD: —yeah, researchers could do this.
WEST: And the other thing it didn't do was create a lot of boiler plate bullshit. [laugh] 'Cause we tried to work out agreements between the three universities on how this would happen, and I'll take credit for this, eventually I said, we're not doing this. This is never going to happen. It's never gonna get approved. We're going to do a handshake agreement. We're gonna have just a general, here's how this will be handled, and then we're gonna walk away. And we never had a take-it-to-the-bank agreement among the three universities. But we did have an agreement that if you were gonna be part of this, the team, here's how we're gonna handle your—and Case we didn't have any trouble with. We had a little bit of trouble with Akron the first run through. And I think they saw after that—Frank Harris and Steven Chuang were the two at the University of Akron.
And Frank was then heading up the Institute for Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering over there. And they came up with a new technology—there is such a prime example. There's an ALCOM retreat. Frank Harris and Steven Chuang are working on these optical materials that are water-white and have a certain orientation. They're speaking the wrong language, but they come—and we don't even know it—we come to ALCOM to one of these symposia and it's clear that the film they just made is what this company wants over here, and a big company over here, in order to go in the aircraft floor. And all's ALCOM did was, you need to talk to these guys. And Bill pushed them to do a startup company, which was done really well. I'll come up with the name. Begins with a G. So prime example. So I think it was an ethic and an ethos rather than legal documents. We tried to do legal, and it was a disaster.
CRAWFORD: But I guess I would just ask, I mean, it seems to me if you're talking about patentable inventions that could lead to substantial financial rewards, that could lead to conflicts in terms of, you have all the collaborations going on, who's patenting what or—you know what I mean?
WEST: So there was an agreement also among ALCOM, and all of the derivations happened. So you're inventor A from Case Western Reserve, inventor B from the University of Akron, and inventor C from Kent State. You're gonna submit a patent disclosure. Well, you three gotta decide how you're gonna do that. You're gonna have to decide who's the first, who's the lead. His institution will lead that. You have to decide what is the division of the inventor's share among those three. The universities will share based on that.
CRAWFORD: OK. Wow. OK. So that was the agreement, then?
WEST: And it held. And Kent has done that, and that would be one of the things I pushed as far as just kind of the general procedure and policy. You have multiple inventors on an invention. When you come and submit the invention disclosure, you have to have the share for each inventor, and they all have to sign it.
Otherwise, don't do it after somebody's come bearing gifts. Do it now and sign it. And I think that is really, really, really important. And then, don't—the research offices are just—the faculty members are the one who did it. Trust them. Trust them. They're negotiating in their own best interests. So it wasn't rocket science, it was just like...
CRAWFORD: Yeah. [laugh]
WEST: I spent six months trying to come up with a policy among the three universities and it was a disaster. And the people at the table were fine. They're all worried about losing vitamin D in the university, and that's not coming. It may, but—yeah, then you won the lottery, so Gatorade, whatever. Does that make sense? And I will take some credit for doing that.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, yeah. No, that makes sense. If I'm understanding what you're saying, you're basically saying it was up to the researchers to decide because of their self interest in this process and knowledge of the process.
WEST: And Bahman, did the same thing, came up when we were doing these grants, multiple grants through the Third Frontier; Kent Displays, AlphaMicron, CoAdna, MicroDiagnostics, HANA Microdisplays, the one that John Erdmann did. So that group would come together, and we submitted successful—brought in millions but had to deal with intellectual property. And we did this—he said, yeah, we'll just do the same thing. And everybody gets rights and whatever. And it worked.
CRAWFORD: I wonder if you could just explain what the Third Frontier was?
WEST: So Governor Taft put in the Third Frontier, which I have to say he did a really—and I'm a diehard Democrat and he was a diehard Republican, but he did a really good job of putting a program together that invested in Ohio to move technology from the laboratory to the marketplace. And he viewed Third Frontier as being technology and everything that was going that way. And he went for a bond issue that was secured and brought in, like, a billion dollars. I mean, it was a huge amount of money that was used across the state to fund these various projects. And we competed successfully for that money and were involved in the Third Frontier and the Third Frontier Commission. It's kind of lost its impetus and got caught up in politics and stuff since then. I don't even know what's happened to it since.
But during the early '80s it was dynamic and well, well, well run. And it would go to the National Academy of Sciences in D.C. for review. They would do the first review. The last meeting I attended of the Third Frontier Commission—and I was massively proud of this—Oleg was director. I was VP of research. He had written a proposal for this grant I was talking about that brought in the eminent scholars. And they had a review in Columbus. I went down. Oleg was sitting there and actually it was when I came up that I wanted to do flexible displays; but leave that aside. I had nothing to do with the proposal. I'm sitting there watching the National Academy and they said, we want to go through the review process and all of this sort of stuff. And we thought probably the best thing was just to bring up the first one, the best one and that was Oleg's. And they were like. And to be fair, we wanted to bring up one of the bad ones, and that's also from Kent State and I won't tell you... [laugh] But he just did really well on the whole process. So the National Academy was—it squeaked as far as being independent. And I think that was the last time that happened.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. So I know we're getting close to our time here, very close.
WEST: OK. Good.
CRAWFORD: So after your tenure as director and you become VP for research, as you've mentioned, until about 2010, and then in 2014 you get involved with Flexible ITO Solutions.
WEST: Solutions, yep.
CRAWFORD: 2016 you are involved with the Institute for Smart Liquid Crystals, starting in 2016.
WEST: Yep. Five years. It's amazing.
CRAWFORD: Time flies, huh?
WEST: Yeah, I'm meeting with them tomorrow.
CRAWFORD: So it sounds like you've continued to be active both on the administrative side as VP for research—I mean, that ended in 2010 but you're doing that—
WEST: Well, I came back and ran the institute for a couple of years, too.
CRAWFORD: Right. That's right. You were interim director.
CRAWFORD: I wonder if you want to say anything about these recent experiences, anything that stands out that's ... ?
WEST: Yeah. I think there's probably a couple things. As I say, I've turned to kind of new directions. Yeah. And I've always kept a balanced life, so I'm kind of enjoying retirement. I enjoy being here. I don't like much of the administrative structure anymore, just the hoops you've gotta jump through. So I'm kinda done with that. But graduate students are a lot of fun. Students are fun in research to work with. And I think there's new directions like the fibers. If I were starting my career out, I'd be all over that. And I think it's definitely time for a new generation. It'll be interesting to see where we go. My one concern is the Liquid Crystal Institute's a little old.
CRAWFORD: Oh, you mean in terms of—
WEST: Age. Just age in the main group. When we've gone out to hire, we always want somebody with an established career, which then brings a four or five at the beginning rather than a three.
CRAWFORD: Which is different than it sounds like what Bill Doane was doing.
WEST: It was.
CRAWFORD: He hired you in '84.
WEST: I was 31. Yeah. It was, yeah, very different that way, and willing to take a risk on that. So it's sort of OK, but, yeah, you need—anyway, so that would be a direction I'd like to see. And sort of this whole thing as far as starting out in new directions. There's somebody that comes in and just kind of pushing the boundaries a little bit.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. And I'm also curious, 'cause we've talked a lot about your work and your experience sort of navigating this relationship or permeable boundary between academia and industry. I wonder if you wouldn't mind sharing your thoughts on kind of where that relationship is today based on your experience and what your sense is of what's going on. Is the relationship effective? Is there anything that could be improved or changed in terms of facilitating those relationships? In other words, was ALCOM kind of like 10 years of sort of utopia and we haven't gotten back to that, or did it set a new paradigm?
WEST: I don't think it set a new paradigm. I think it was the culmination of right time, right place in early investments and in new technology. I think there's an opportunity to do that again, and I think we could find ourselves back in an ALCOM, but it's not going tomorrow and it's not going to happen in five years. It's sitting on a much more secure, much more infrastructure than the institute was when I came onboard. And I'm not claiming I built that. I kind of went along with it. But what the institute is now is way grander than what it was when I joined the institute in '84. And once again, I didn't do that. I just was fortunate. I'm not making that claim. So it's in a better position. I'm hugely concerned with the ability to fund research in higher education in a midwestern kind of middle of the road Ohio university at this time. And Kent's kind of pulled in a number of different directions. And can it maintain this alone? Should we be building broader collaborations? And I think that's a question for a number of the universities in the region. And do we do a more effective way of doing that? So if I were looking at doing that, I would say, yeah, the Polymer Institute at the University of Akron, the Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State, and some of the—and I'm not sure at Cleveland State or Youngstown, but the other universities around, how do we join together and so we're not competing as much as we used to? The competition used to be really fierce between Kent and Akron.
I think we're in a much better position to negotiate now, although they were an important partner during—so that'd be one, I think. I'd be involved politically. I always was down at Columbus a lot, and not that much in Washington, probably, but down in Columbus and locally. How do we make sure that we're playing an effective role and recognized for what we do; and that there is a return on that investment across the board? I don't know if you followed it—kind of a sign of the time—and it didn't happen in the end and not surprisingly, but I don't know if you remember that Foxconn at the beginning of—
CRAWFORD: Oh, yeah. Mm-hmm.
WEST: We were the center point for their look at Ohio.
CRAWFORD: Really? I didn't know that.
WEST: Oh, yeah. And I went to Columbus and was making presentations and doing all that. And, yeah, it was sort of funny 'cause it was, like, John can—yeah, sure, I can. And they knew us. They knew what was going on. They asked very direct questions. It was Ohio State and everything else, who they wanted to talk to was us. And I think that opportunity needs to be done again and to realize that. I don't know that the opportunities are there at the state level or anything else, and so I think we have to fit in with the new political realities and look more creatively at how we do that. But to give this up at this stage would be a massive mistake. I'm thinking probably everybody you talk to will say the same thing.
CRAWFORD: [laugh] Right, right. So thinking about your career, starting out at William & Mary and sort of, as you said, kind of just flowing along with the river, it sounded like.
CRAWFORD: I don't think that was quite your metaphor but ...
WEST: The metaphor I used was catching the wave. [laugh]
CRAWFORD: [laugh] That's right. That's right. You did you use that. I got the aquatic element. But thinking about your career and the different experiences you've had and the different skillsets that you've had to use, both in the laboratory but as being director and now you're just mentioning your time down in Columbus. What advice would you have to somebody who's maybe embarking on a career in science and/or technology? What do they need to be thinking about in terms of—to do it well?
WEST: Need to be multidimensional. And that's been the case right from the beginning. It used to be just being interdisciplinary. Interdisciplinary needs to go way beyond where it was and needs to be multidimensional, and minor in art history. Really expand what you're looking at and build collaborations and career friendships that are outside of your field. And I think that ends up being really, really important. And I'd say in the last 10 years that's been one of my focuses. I'm massively proud of the smart phone course, just because it's different and it sort of exemplifies the liberal arts education that I started with but takes it almost to another level.
CRAWFORD: And what was the title of that course again?
WEST: Be Smarter than your Phone.
CRAWFORD: Be Smarter than your Phone, right.
WEST: I showed you the thing on the enlightenment, too, right?
CRAWFORD: Yes, mm-hmm.
WEST: Yeah, which kind of got me jazzed, too. We'll see whether it turns any cranks or whatever. But, yeah, that realization of the continuum from—'cause if could look at scientific history, these guys didn't identify themselves as basic scientists or anything. They just enjoyed what they were doing, looked for applications, but it wasn't only applications driven, the whole nine yards.
And, yeah, we need to kind of return to a little bit more of that exploration. And it doesn't mean that all of us run off and start businesses by a long shot, but that we're not antithetical to it. And so that's the heart of kind of what I'm doing now, although all the way through it's been kind of that balance. I can remember some of the first graduates saying, yeah, you need to be multidisciplinary. Don't define yourself by your discipline. And that's the wrong way to go. Be good in your discipline, but don't define yourself that way.
CRAWFORD: Yeah. And then, just one additional question. I think given that we're doing this interview in June 2021, and we're hopefully coming out of the COVID pandemic, things look good, but the last year has been unique, to say the least. And I just wonder if you could say a little bit about what it has been like being—professionally in the last year trying to do science, running a business, teaching.
WEST: I think there's a couple of things. Well, the teaching, I taught online, which was really kind of interesting in some ways. I got rave reviewed from the students, so I was kind of thrilled about that. It was a unique experience. Not the way to do it, in the end, I think. You need that face-to-face interaction. And I feed off of that, so it's, I think, important for me. The students got to see me, but I didn't get to see them and so that was kind of hard. I think it was very easy to move into remote meetings. That was easy. What didn't happen—I just got jazzed today 'cause I met this new SURE [Summer Undergadute Research Experience] students that came and brought the students together, and I found myself just sharing my perspective, like I did with you, on different things and why I'd be working on fibers and stuff I never would've done remotely, and that interaction. Unfortunately, it's a half hour drive from my house here, so—but I need to do more of that face-to-face stuff. And it'll be good when we move on to the next stage. It's also just stopped international travel completely.
CRAWFORD: Right. Yeah.
WEST: I was actually in China a year ago January and haven't been back since. I'm trying to decide when the next trip will be there. But, yeah, and I think a realization of where it was good and where it's bad. And I think a lot of the meetings can be done remotely that we used to do. But particularly the interaction with graduate students and in-face classes is hard to replicate. And I think maybe some of the regular courses that are just, you need this information, that can be done remotely.
But more of the Be Smarter than your Phone kind of stuff is probably better face to face. But I'm definitely heading more and more into an interdisciplinary kind of area. Even the research team that's doing the fibers now is fashion school, podiatric medicine, and the LCI. There's faculty from—and from the arts, all are part of this team now. So it's kind of cool. And we meet virtual meetings right now but, yeah, looking at the next steps for doing that. So hopefully being in a spot to write a proposal. But I have no desire to administer anything anymore. So if I can move into the old guy that just kind of sits and gives his advice and everything, it'll be OK.
CRAWFORD: [laugh] Yeah, yeah. Well, you've just moved into emeritus status, or you will be in July?
WEST: No, no. I did a year ago.
CRAWFORD: Oh, you did a year ago? OK.
WEST: Yeah, I did a year ago. I took the early buy-out a year ago. And it was a good time to do it when all of this happened. I still taught my course in the fall, and so, yeah, everything's been good that way. I've got graduate students but I've kind of handed off, so now everything is collaborative. We got a new grant that's coming in, but I'll be a consultant. I'm not the PI and didn't want to be. And I think, yeah, it's been fun, and works with a team that is respectful of where I am that way. So it's been good. And I have a lot of fond feelings of the institute, but I'm OK. [laugh]
CRAWFORD: [laugh] Great. Is there anything else you'd like to share before we wrap up?
WEST: No, no. I think it's been good. I know I met with Asad way back and was really kind of jazzed about the whole thing on the way through. I think it will be important to get Bill Doane's perspective on the '60s and '70s, 'cause I only have that from a distance. And, you know, ancient history.
CRAWFORD: Sure. Yeah.
WEST: And you ought to give Elaine a call.
CRAWFORD: Yes, yes, yes.
WEST: Did Asad know Elaine? You've interviewed him. Did he mention her at all?
CRAWFORD: He did. He did.
WEST: I'm sorry. I shouldn't ask questions about that.
CRAWFORD: Yeah, he did meet her so, yeah, but I certainly appreciate the recommendation.
CRAWFORD: Well, thank you so much for your time and for sharing ...
WEST: My pleasure. What's going to happen to this in the end? You say it'll end up in the library in some sort of viewable format?
CRAWFORD: Yeah. Yeah. So I can explain that to you once we get the recording off.
WEST: OK. Good. No worries. Yeah. We're good.
Liquid Crystal Oral History: West, John
Crawford, Matthew James
An oral history interview with Dr. John West, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry (1997-2021) at Kent State University. This interview is part of the Liquid Crystal Oral History Project. West shares the development of his educational and professional careers. He was born and raised in Chittenango, a small town just outside of Syracuse, New York and began to take an interest in science during his time as an undergraduate at William & Mary College. He then went on to complete a graduate program in chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University before receiving a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Utah for a year. West then discusses his work for the Digital Recording Corporation, also in Utah, where he invented a photographic plate made of gelatin which could record and playback sound. He then talks about why he joined the LCI in 1984 as a Senior Research Fellow (1984-1996) and how much of his early work at the LCI was focused on Polymer Dispersed Liquid Crystals. West also gives insight to the relationship between the LCI and industry as he helped foster and maintain some of these connections. He then emphasizes how the NSF-funded Advanced Liquid Crystalline Optical Materials (ALCOM) Center helped the LCI grow, notably through the Industrial Partnership Program (IPP) which led to many spinoff companies focused on the applications of liquid crystals. West also explains the various roles he played at the LCI including his time as Associate Director (1990-1996) and Director (1997-2003).
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.
Institutes and Centers
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audio digital file
Special Collections and Archives
|Finding aid title||Finding Aid for the Liquid Crystal Oral History Project records|
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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LCI Associate Director
LCI Senior Research Fellow
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