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The World's Fastest Computer Is Crunching Cash, Not Numbers

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By now, Steve S. Chen figured he would be the toast of the supercomputing world, celebrated internationally as the designer of the swiftest, the most powerful, the most awe-inspiring computer on the planet. Instead, Chen sits holed up in cramped, temporary space above a chiropractor's office in Eau Claire, Wis., working his phone in a desperate attempt to raise some cash, and raise it fast.

Chen's company, Supercomputer Systems Inc., is dead after Chen's sugar daddy, troubled IBM, declined in January to renew its five-year-old investment. Now, Chen's dream, to lead the company that builds the most super of all supercomputers, looks bleaker than a Wisconsin winter. Says Chen: "It makes me sad and also disappointed and bad."

He may be down, but he doesn't think he's out. On Feb. 12, Chen announced he would form a new company, SuperComputers International. For now, the company constitutes little more than Chen and a couple of dozen unpaid volunteers--all former SSI employees. It has no assets and no financing. And it's even unclear what claim Chen has to any of SSI's intellectual property rights. Without them, it's questionable what kind of machine Chen could ever build.

Yet Chen spends most of his waking hours trying to drum up new money from as far away as his boyhood home, Taiwan, to as near as Eau Claire's hard-pressed city coffers. "The man's tenacity is undaunted," says Richard Sherman, a consultant who has been introducing potential investors to Chen.

'END OF THE ROPE.' In a split-level brick building just a few snowy blocks from the chiropractor sits a four-processor prototype of Chen's creation, the SS-1. The machine has soaked up more than $220 million thus far, including $134 million from IBM, $20 million from the Defense Dept., and $22 million from Ford, Boeing, Du Pont, and Electricite de France. None has stepped forward to invest more.

If the SS-1 ever reaches the production stage as a fully equipped, 32-processor model, the result would be a computer with a mind-boggling peak speed of 51 billion calculations a second. That's well over 2.5 times faster than the peaks reached by supercomputers sold by Cray Research Inc. and Japan's NEC Corp.

But the "if" had become just too big for ailing IBM, which is struggling to cut $1 billion out of its own research and development budget this year. By the time IBM pulled out, Chen's machine was at least a year behind schedule. "They said they'd have it ready by 1992," says an IBM spokesman. "We came to the end of the rope."

Chen needed $60 million more to get the SS-1 up and running. His attempts to raise the money in a public stock offering failed late in 1992, after Lehman Brothers, which was to back the deal, demanded IBM make up shortfalls in Chen's projected revenues. Chen figured his company could produce $650 million in sales by 1998--a figure one investment banker calls "ludicrous." IBM balked, and the deal died.

Even the design of the SS-1 conspired against Chen. The computer is known as a vector processor, where high speeds are achieved by packing expensive custom circuits so tightly together they must be bathed in liquid coolant to prevent melting. Supercomputers have been made this way since the 1970s. Lately, though, a computer design known as "highly parallel" has been gaining ground. This design links numerous inexpensive, air-cooled microprocessors. Conventional wisdom says the highly parallel computer makes the vector processor outdated--and overpriced. A full-blown SS-1 would cost $80 million.

Over fried rice and Leinenkugel's beer at the Mandarin Club, the restaurant he owns in Eau Claire, Chen insists that the SS-1 would have evolved into a highly parallel machine. In the meantime, the death of SSI, one of the few U. S. companies pursuing the vector path, he says, is a "national disaster."

While Chen hunts for big investors, he wants Wisconsin--which has already sunk $1.5 million into SSI--to cough up the last remaining $500,000 in the state's development fund to tide him over. He may have a shot: The closure of SSI, laying off its 320 employees, has devastated Eau Claire, population 57,000. Last summer, the Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. plant, the biggest employer in town, closed down, wiping out 2,400 jobs.

Indeed, in the dark winter night, former SSI workers can be heard singing a version of the civil rights spiritual, "We Shall Overcome." Renamed "Build It, They Will Come," one verse goes like this: "It can beat a Cray/It can beat a Cray/It can beat a Cray today/Oh, deep in my heart/I do believe/Build it, they will come, someday."Russell Mitchell in Eau Claire, Wis.

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