Weichen Tien knows what he's after--and goes for it. As president of the Development Center for Biotechnology, he has been angling to lure Taiwan's best and brightest back from America. Strutting down the corridor at this burgeoning research and development institute, Tien has a lot to show for his efforts. The center's eight directors all came back from the U.S. over the past five years. "I got this guy from Kodak," says Tien, pointing to one executive suite. "This guy came from Monsanto, this one from Upjohn, and that one from Abbott."
As never before, U.S.-trained engineers and researchers are being lured back home to help direct Taiwan's climb up the technology ladder. With its coffers spilling over, Taiwan is pumping increasingly hefty R&D funds into critical technologies of the future: $280 million for submicron chip production, $120 million for biotechnology and pharmaceutical research, and $120 million for high-definition TV. As U.S. blue chips cut back sharply on personnel and R&D, thousands of highly experienced Taiwanese employees are bolting for greener pastures back home (chart, page 134).
RELENTLESS. Taiwan is not alone. To varying degrees, all the affluent Asian tigers are drawing back talent trained in the West. For years, South Korea has been luring its U.S.-educated PhDs and experienced engineers home to run divisions at the powerful chaebol, or conglomerates. Singapore is throwing big research money at U.S.-educated recruits. And Hong Kong is a natural magnet. Most faculty members at its new technology university are U.S.-trained Chinese.
These Asians who have been exposed to American entrepreneurial ways often achieve surprising success when they return to their more hierarchical societies. When Daewoo Chairman Kim Woo-choong wanted his chaebol's small electronics company to move into new fields, for example, he tapped Park Sung-kyu, a University of Texas PhD who was working for oil-field service giant Schlumberger. Park eventually founded Daewoo Telecom Co., a $350 million company that makes products from personal computers to optical fibers.
In Singapore, the new, government-backed Institute of Microelectronics is on a recruiting spree to build a staff of 125 within three years. Its head, Billy Y.S. Chen, is a mainland-born Taiwanese who worked at AT&T Bell Laboratories for 26 years. Research and development manager Victor K. L. Huang is another Bell Labs veteran who worked with Chen.
But among the Four Tigers, Taiwan is by far the most relentless in its recruiting drive. And it is going for talent with years of hands-on experience at major U.S. companies. There are so many former Bell Labs employees in Taiwan that 120 of them have formed the Bell System Alumni Assn. Many of them work at the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), Taiwan's premier research center.
SMALL SACRIFICES. To come back, they all make sacrifices. Would-be returnees have to persuade their spouses to forsake homes with two-car garages in suburban America for more cramped quarters in Taiwan. They also have to convince their kids, many born and reared in America, that crowded little Taiwan is really home. Some returnees even take pay cuts of up to 50%. But for many U.S.-trained engineers, it's a small price to pay for a chance at big challenges and, eventually, big bucks.
At face value, the departure of the Asians could be seen as a blow to U.S. industry. But in terms of the U.S. work force, their numbers are small. "For Bell Labs, it's nothing," says Lance Wu, deputy general director of ITRI's Computer & Communications Lab and a former researcher at Bell, which employs 17,000 engineers and scientists.
Taipei business executives argue that Taiwan's brain gain actually helps the U.S. because it creates opportunities for American companies. After all, many of the returning Taiwanese are now U.S. citizens with distinguished careers and contacts spanning 20 years. Many have children studying and working in the U.S., and some even maintain homes on the West Coast. More important, when Taiwanese companies need a strategic partner, they almost always look to the U.S. first. "The returning professionals are big advocates of U.S. technology and values," says ITRI President Otto C.C. Lin. Such linkups "come naturally."
Those ties have come naturally for Patrick H. Wang. After graduating from Stanford University, Wang began a 17-year career at Hewlett-Packard Co. researching microwave technology. But in 1982, he and seven Taiwanese buddies, all microwave experts in the U.S., decided to launch a microwave industry in Taiwan. Quasi-government banks put up 40% of the venture capital and the partners kicked in the rest to start up Microelectronics Technology Inc. at Hsinchu Science-Based Industrial Park, 40 miles from Taipei.
The gamble paid off. The company now boasts 600 employees and $81 million in sales. Its best-known product is INMARSAT, the portable satellite communications system that was used by Cable News Network's Peter Arnett to transmit his reports out of Baghdad during the Persian Gulf war. And in 1986, Wang went full circle: Hewlett-Packard took a 20% stake in his company. "This is an expansion of U.S. influence and competitiveness in this part of the world," Wang says. He adds: "We know each other. It's easy to communicate. The mutual trust is there." Now, his company has U.S. subsidiaries in Maryland and California.
One major lure to returnees is the money that the Taiwanese government is offering them to help develop new products. High-definition TV expert T. H. Steve Chao, a University of Pennsylvania PhD, was a technical staff member for four years at the David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton, N.J. Sarnoff, a subsidiary of California-based SRI International, does research under contract for private and government clients. But Chao became dispirited because colleagues there were under heavy pressure to get funding--or quickly become history.
Now, as associate director of ITRI's HDTV program, he has $120 million in government funds to put together the center's most complicated project ever, with five labs doing state-of-the-art research. The goal: to work with industry to turn up new products so Taiwan can get a piece of the action, once the U.S. sets its HDTV standards. "We have much more reliable funding from our government," he says.
`TOPPED OUT.' Some returnees bring back more to Asia than technological knowhow. Working at major companies in the U.S., they have acquired such skills as the ability to size up markets and motivate workers. T. Y. Wu, 48, for example, used to manage IBM's Los Gatos Very Large-Scale Integration Technology Laboratory, with 100 employees, in California. But after 17 years at Big Blue and three at General Motors Corp. before that, Wu decided he had "topped out." In 1991, he became president of Taiwan's UMAX Data System Inc., known for its high-quality color scanners, with sales reaching $40 million this year.
While these products aren't Wu's field of expertise, what he brought was the managerial techniques of a global company to a country filled mostly with little ones. His ties to the U.S. remain strong: For software to enable a scanner to read English, Wu turned to Caere Corp., a small California company. "There's a small world between Taiwan and Silicon Valley," Wu says.
Some Taiwanese came back because they saw limited career prospects in the U.S. Miin Wu, 44, worked in Silicon Valley for 13 years. "No matter how hard I worked, I always remained a technical contributor," he says. So he decided to come home and be the boss--but he didn't come alone. To staff the chip-design shop he opened at Hsinchu in 1989, Wu brought with him 40 IC designers from Silicon Valley. His recruiting pitch: "Let's make a successful company so we can make money." He's doing that: Sales increased from $6 million in 1990 to $80 million this year.
This flow of human capital from America's universities, research labs, and high-tech companies is creating a corps of talented, highly mobile technical managers in East Asia. They are destined to play a leading role in Asia's high-tech quest well into the next century. People like Lance Wu are also building a kind of technological bridge between the U.S. and Asia that could one day become as important as America's strategic alliances with Japan. In his Hsinchu office, with a Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar on one wall and a calendar of New York City landmarks on the other, Wu jokes that he doesn't quite fit in anywhere anymore. Where he clearly does belong, however, is at technology's cutting edge.