"Industry" births have come easy to the 1980s: personal computing, robotics, biotech. All flared; some, at least momentarily, have fizzled; and now much science-page and business-section space is being claimed by the latest hot technology story: superconductivity.
Oversimplified, superconductivity is the capacity to pass an electric current without resistance. Overdramatized, it means incredibly cheap power, ultrafast levitated trains, pollution-free cars, and other futuristic applications. It might also mean money. The market for superconducting wire for the electric-utility industry alone, says one advocate, could be $5 billion.
In just months, the contemporary components of a real live industry have appeared as if by magic: investors, entrepreneurs, researchers, political proponents, corporate planners, consultants, hangers-on, and so forth. In the old days, some of these folks might have waited until the fledgling superconductivity industry developed a few details -- like, say, a product.
But the rapid growth of other new technology-based industries has made business and political types nervous. Afraid of being left behind competitively, they scurry to cover their bets just in case the latest craze is for real. The result? A superconductivity industry with economically feasible products only beginning to appear. (By press time, for instance, Japanese companies such as Hayashi Chemical Industry Co. had announced production of early-stage superconducting materials.) Still, big U.S. players seem undeterred by all the questions. As is the modern fashion in industry propagation, all the usual suspects have taken their places anyway.
The Stars. Of which, some complain, there are too few. Chief among them is University of Houston physicist Paul Chu, who earlier this year set the world scientific community abuzz when he demonstrated superconductivity in ceramic material at the economically achievable temperature of 183 degrees Celsius, 64 degrees warmer than has been previously achieved.
Runner-up: Sadeg Faris, president and chief executive officer of Hypres Inc., in Elmsford, N.Y. Because he heads one of only a handful of small companies involved in superconductivity, he had top billing at the federal Conference on Commercial Applications of Superconductivity last July. He sounds like a historian. After the creation of vacuum tubes in the early 1900s and transistors in 1947, Faris said, superconductivity represents "the third electronics revolution."
The Comers. One might be George McKinney, fast-talking general partner of American Research & Development Inc., dean of venture capital firms. He was so taken with the research accomplishments of four Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists that he decided to invest in -- and run -- their company: American Superconductor Corp. To explain why he stepped in himself instead of recruiting a management team, as venture capitalists normally do, McKinney cited the speed of the industry's evolution. "We couldn't let things develop as usual."
The spawning of superconductivity entrepreneurs at America's top universities has already begun. Marvels MIT physics graduate researcher Tom Altshuler: "There's nothing like being a 26-year-old graduate student and having picked the right field by default."
The Dreamers. Awaiting the ultimate achievement of research -- superconductivity at room temperature -- are people with applications. Mary L. Good, president of engineered materials research at Allied-Signal Inc., envisions using superconductivity to study brain waves, search for oil fields, and detect submarines. Donald Maurer, president of EMPI Inc., an $11-million-a-year maker of electronic nerve-stimulation equipment, foresees magnetic fields focused highly enough to destroy inoperable brain tumors, or intense and consistent enough "to make a paraplegic walk."
Between his dreams, though, Maurer worries. "This reminds me a lot of the early excitement of biotechnology," he says. "They found a lot of grunt work still had to be done."
The Cheerleaders. For many, America's ability to succeed in superconductivity has become a litmus test of this country's ability to beat the Japanese technologically. Thus, the federal conference on an industry that at the time had no product was treated to the startling sight of the nation's top officials -- the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Energy, led by the President -- trying hard to be inspirational. "The sky is the limit," declared President Reagan. "This new age of superconductivity is a new arena of the spirit of entrepreneurship." But first, he observed in a token note of realism, we "must bridge the gap from the laboratory to the marketplace."
The Promoters. A California company, Advantage Quest, is pitching a two-day $770 workshop on "Superconductors in Electronics Commercialization" with the helpful proclamation: "The 'gold rush' is on." Which seems, at least from a promotional standpoint, true.
Somewhat more restrained is the Engineers' Council of Houston, which will cosponsor the first annual "World Congress on Superconductivity" next February, charging attendees a seemingly nominal $200 fee. Expect more seminars and associations to follow.
The Shoppers. Ed Zschau, of Brentwood Associates, in Menlo Park, Calif., was among the scores of investors at the Washington conference who admitted to "studying the field with great interest." So far, he says, no bets. He, like many, worries that "this is a different kind of venture capital situation than we usually see." No teams of entrepreneurs complete with product and application. Mainly ideas and notions, the fruits of which "it's too early to know." About all investors can do, he says with a trace of lament, "is put their money in people." And so they will.
There's no other choice.