The Friday Interview, Dr Lou Manzione, Bells Labs Ireland

11 Mar 2005

It’s not every inventor who is still alive when his or her brainchild is displayed in a museum but happily for Dr Lou Manzione (pictured) he is one of them.

When he is not inventing things, Manzione is executive director of Bells Labs Ireland, a new telecoms research centre jointly funded by the Irish Government and Lucent Technologies, which officially opened earlier this week.

The modern and stylish building, which is located at Lucent’s facility in Blanchardstown in Dublin, also accommodates a new museum to showcase some of the inventions made by Bell Labs scientists. The objects on display include the world’s first fax machine dating from 1925, the Vitaphone Projector (1926) that allowed sound to be added to the movies for the first time, a replica of the first transistor (1947) and a half-scale model of Telstar, the world’s first commercial satellite launched into orbit in 1962. The exhibits also include the first base station antenna for mobile technology, which Manzione helped invent back in the Eighties.

The lab is part of a €69m investment package announced by the Government last June, which has also seen the creation of a cross-university telecommunications research facility, the Centre for Telecommunications Value Chain-driven Research (CTVR) based at Trinity College Dublin. The CTVR is part of Science Foundation Ireland’s (SFI) ambitious Centre for Science Engineering and Technology programme, which involves bringing together a range of universities and other research institutes to conduct research in a given area — in this case telecommunications and supply chain technologies.

Appointed as executive director of Bell Labs Ireland last August on a three-year contract, Manzione brings 20 years’ experience from Bell Labs’ central research facility at Murray Hill, New Jersey to the role. A PhD graduate from Princeton University he is a research heavyweight with 13 patents, two books and 80 publications to his name. His speciality research areas include advanced manufacturing, antenna technology, thermal management and advanced electronics packaging and assembly.

Since taking up the post, Manzione has been busy putting in place the building blocks that will enable the labs to become a key part of Ireland’s research infrastructure. Getting the physical infrastructure right is one thing but more important still is hiring the right people. The Irish team includes four ex-pats from Bell Labs in the US. Manzione sees these as providing a crucial bridge to the company’s US research facilities, thus allowing Irish research partners to tap into the expertise of the entire Bell Labs organisation.

The labs are currently just over one third way to their target headcount of 40 researchers but Manzione is not rushing to get there; it’s a process that is necessarily painstaking, he feels.

“We take hiring very seriously. We typically interview about eight candidates for each position. It’s all about the quality of the people. Our legacy here will be to have a first-rate staff; as good as anywhere in the world,” he remarks.

But recruitment has been a patchy affair and one of the challenges facing Manzione is a skills shortage in certain areas. “One of the areas we’re having a hard time hiring is in antenna technology for commercial wireless,” he concedes. “So I’m working with SFI on how we can increase the number of antenna engineers in Ireland.”

Another key part of the people equation is forging strong alliances with researchers at Bell Labs’ university partners. On this front, Manzione says he has been very impressed by the response of researchers and their eagerness to work with him. Managing these relationships will clearly be crucial to the success of the whole venture, as he acknowledges. “We know we’re breaking new ground — that’s what exciting about it. But of course one of challenges lies in managing that many organisations. However, we have the right team, the team is highly motivated and all the organisations have bought in to the model.”

If the universities are one key external group that Manzione and his colleagues will be working closely with, another will be the businesses, Irish and multinational, that will be the vehicles for commercialising the innovations that emerge from the labs.

Manzione has high hopes that the Irish base of SMEs in particular can rise to the challenge.

“With some aspects of technology it’s better to work with SMEs. The work that is sometimes more innovative appeals to a SME. So-called disruptive technology finds a home faster and better in SMEs. It’s called the innovator’s dilemma — big companies don’t like to disrupt because they have big businesses,” he laughs. “That’s why there’s a great opportunities for Ireland for bringing a company such as Bell Labs that specialises in disruptions — there’s a whole room of disruptions out there,” he exclaims waving a hand in the direction of the museum.

Already things are starting to happen on this front. Enterprise Ireland is currently helping to put together a research consortium consisting of six small Irish plastics companies, a multinational company and Bell Labs nanotechnology research. Manzione sees this as the first of a number of such collaborative projects emanating from the research facility.

With his piercing dark eyes, Manzione has a quiet but forceful presence and it is impossible to doubt the conviction he has about this project. But in the beginning not everyone shared this conviction. In fact, many felt the idea of a research institute co-funded by Lucent Technologies and the Irish Government and involving nine Irish third-level institutes was simply unworkable. Among these was the president of Bell Labs itself, Bill O’Shea, who candidly admitted this during this week’s official opening: “When I heard about the idea, my reaction was ‘Go at it but it will never happen’.”

This was an understandable reaction, according to Manzione. “We saw that we would need several universities to partner with us — that in itself would be difficult. We also understood that the SFI criteria would be very strict. We did not assume success in its review processes. After all, there have only been three CSET centres approved.”

Now that the labs are in place, how will their success ultimately be measured? “In several ways,” he responds. “In Lucent it will be that we have a real impact on the evolution of our product. We hope this can happen as soon as two or three years’ time because we have products on the drawing board right now that we hope will have some impact. Also, it’s how well we connect to the Irish enterprise; how well we stay connected to Irish universities. As long as we stay well connected, successes will come from that.”

By Brian Skelly