A Lucky Break

A knee injury ended Timothy Childs' pro ball aspirations, so he tackled chip making instead

Every career has its pivotal moment. For college football star and math whiz Timothy Childs, it was a knee injury that led him to pursue a PhD in physics instead of chasing his dream of joining the San Francisco 49ers. Today, he's CEO of Minneapolis-based TLC Precision Wafer Technology Inc., a still tiny but well-positioned player in the burgeoning $2 billion market for gallium arsenide wafers and chips--superfast chips that are more resilient than silicon ones and can carry higher-frequency signals. Now, he's butting heads with big-budgeted players like TRW and Daimler-Benz Aerospace.

Demand for these computer chips is expected to quintuple over the next seven years for use in automotive radar, satellite communications, and other applications. That's fertile turf for Childs, who led a gallium arsenide research project at Honeywell before leaving in 1991 to start his own company. Two years later, it was already profitable. He locked in several defense contracts early on and teamed with Lockheed-Martin under a minority-business program. Overall, he aims to expand his $5 million, 19-employee company to $100 million in sales in the next three to five years. So far, he's raised about $3 million out of $8 million he needs to get there.

To be sure, Minneapolis is a long way from Silicon Valley. But TLC benefits from lower living costs and proximity to research facilities at the University of Minnesota. And Childs, who grew up on welfare in Miami, regularly taps the inner-city labor pool, which he calls an unrecognized resource in a region with a strong work ethic. "Beyond the temperature, it's a no-brainer," he says.

That pragmatism surfaced early in his life. As a kid, Childs used to buy up candy during the week and sell it to the neighborhood kids on Sunday, when stores were closed--at double the price. As a student at Florida A&M on a football scholarship, he worked summers at AT&T Bell Labs in New Jersey. When he chose Stanford University to study physics, with AT&T footing the bill, he still dreamed of the nearby 49ers. "I still wish I could have played for the 49ers," he says wistfully. But all the same, Childs has the ball and is running with it.

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