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Wyant Speaks on Balancing the Roles of Professor, Inventor, Entrepreneur

November 7, 2013

Dr. James C. Wyant spoke on the topic of “Professor to Inventor to Entrepreneur: The Excitement of High-Tech Innovation” at the 13th installation of the Wyant Lecture Series on Monday, November 4th.

Dr. James C. Wyant, Professor Emeritus of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona, spoke on the topic of "Professor to Inventor to Entrepreneur: The Excitement of High-Tech Innovation" at the 13th installation of the Wyant Lecture Series on Monday, November 4th. He offered insight on the tools needed to balance these roles over his long career--including a little know-how and a lot of luck.

After graduating with a Ph.D. in optics from the University of Rochester in 1968, Wyant began his career as an optical engineer at Itek Corporation, a former United States defense contractor that specialized in camera systems for spy satellites. With a lot of money and creative freedom in the research and development laboratory, he went to work on innovative projects and solutions, but at the time, the company didn't have the computers and technology needed to bring the ideas to fruition.  

Wyant left Itek in 1974 and took a position as an Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona in the optical sciences department. He was promoted to full professor with tenure by 1979 and found himself with the desire to start his own company, with two goals in mind--to have fun and to make money. From the basement of his lab at the university, he began developing an interferometer that measured the roughness and shape of flat surfaces. He saw this instrument as having applications in many areas, including the machine tool, automobile, optical and medical industries, but there was one problem-the microscope didn't really work, producing mostly "random noise" and "garbage data."

When IBM showed interest in purchasing an interferometer to measure the magnetic tape in hard disk drives in 1982, Wyant promised to deliver the instrument under his yet-to-be-started company, WYKO Optical--a  name derived from the first two letters of his last name and the last name of then-colleague Chris Koliopoulos. The company was formed quickly, and out of necessity, when he received a check for $60,000 from IBM, made out to WYKO.

After perfecting the instrument with the help of his electronics-minded co-workers, WYKO went on to sell more than 1,000 of the interferometers, which proved to be a "killer app" for the hard-disk industry, providing a technology that is still used today.

But not all of WYKO Optical's inventions were money-makers. A foot scanner, marketed to podiatrists for producing orthotics, fell flat with his audience that wanted to pay no more than $2,500 for the $12,000 machine. Other hitches included a name change to WYKO Corporation after several people stopped into their office looking to purchase eyeglasses.

Wyant sold the company to Veeco in 1997and became the director of the department at the University of Arizona. He started his second company, 4D Technology, in 2002--this time equipped with experience from his years at WYKO.

"You have to know the difference between a research project and a product," he said. "You have to know the difference between the cost of parts for the product and the cost to design, sell, produce and maintain that product."

Other essentials for starting a business include a lot of money, a product people want, the will to do whatever it takes to get the job done, the ability to hire good people to fill the areas where you are weak, timing and good luck.

Speaking to the students in the Janet M. Daley Library Lecture Hall, Wyant advised undergraduates to surround themselves with smart people early in their careers.

"For the right person, doing a company is a fantastic job," he said. "It's a lot of fun, a lot of hours and a lot of headaches, but I can't think of a job that's better than that."

Dr. Wyant is the founding dean of the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona in Tucson.  Along with his many academic achievements, he has served as a member and leader of optical science organizations including the Optical Society of America and the International Society for Optics and Photonics. 

In recognition of his many accomplishments, the University of Arizona College of Business and Public Administration named him an Entrepreneurial Fellow.  He has also received Arizona's "Innovator of the Year" product award and the University of Arizona Technology Innovation Award.

The Wyant Lecture Series, which began in 2007, features speakers in the humanities, history and the arts. The Louise Doherty Wyant endowed professorship was established by Dr. Wyant and his wife, the late Louise Doherty Wyant '63 in honor of Sister Anne Cyril Delaney, SND. Sister Anne Cyril was a professor of English at Emmanuel for 26 years. Through her teaching and her intellectual breadth, Sister Anne Cyril exemplified the values and relevance of the humanities and had a profound influence on generations of students.