He’s working with technology at the atomic and molecular scale, but there’s nothing small about the role that nanotechnology has played in Warren Oliver’s professional life since he co-founded his first company nearly three decades ago in Oak Ridge.
In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, the President of Nanomechanics, Inc. used the word “fun” numerous times to describe his passion for nanotechnology and the work that his company is doing.
“When you work around really good people, good things are going to happen,” Oliver said. “I’m perfectly willing to hire people much better than me.”
Throughout the interview, Oliver also regularly cited individuals – family, mentors and colleagues – who have played a major role in his professional life. One of those was his father, Professor Ben Oliver, who served many years as head of the Department of Materials Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK).
The younger Oliver enrolled at UTK to pursue a degree in aerospace engineering, but he found that only one other student was interested in a similar career at that time, and the classes they tried to take for two consecutive quarters were always cancelled. It was obvious to him that he needed to change majors.
“My dad convinced me to pursue materials, because no matter what industry or technology you are interested in, materials matter,” Oliver explained, adding that his father was absolutely correct.
He later did his doctoral work at Stanford University under legendary professor William D. Nix, an individual who clearly made a lasting mark on Oliver.
“He had a fantastic influence on the materials community,” Oliver said in explaining that Nix has mentored 77 doctoral students in his 40-year career with 32 of those individuals going on to be college professors, including UTK’s Professor George Pharr. In fact, at the time of the interview, Oliver was planning to attend a “Nix Academic Family Reunion.”
After Stanford, Oliver did a post-doc with a Swiss company called Brown, Boveri & Cie (BBC) which later became ABB. It was during this time that he met John Pethica, then a staff scientist in the thin films group at BBC. Pethica, who was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1999 (one of the youngest people ever elected), was another of those people who would have a major influence on Oliver’s life.
From Switzerland, Oliver and his wife moved to Hartford, CT and a job with United Technologies. One year of the winter weather in the Northeast convinced them to return to East Tennessee and a position with another materials science legend, C. T. Liu at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Oliver tells the story of how his first company, Nano Instruments, Inc., was founded in 1984 in the basement of his home and focused on commercializing a “tool to measure the mechanical properties of thin films” that Pethica and Oliver had developed during his post-doc in Switzerland. They were 50-50 partners in the company.
“We would not have gotten it going if the first two customers had not been friends,” Oliver said. One of those was Nix at Stanford. The other was another important materials scientist from East Tennessee, Professor Carl Mc’hargue.
“We took large deposits and made a one-of-a-kind device,” he added, noting that the purchase order from Stanford did not come easily.” I submitted the quote on a dot matrix printer which did not impress the purchasing agent.” Fortunately, Professor Nix intervened to attest to the start-up’s validity, and the order was placed.
With the business underway, Oliver said that they moved the company to his brother’s basement, and Dan Oliver became Nano Instruments’ first full-time employee. The company later moved to the Fairview Technology Center.
The company was acquired in 1998 by MTS Systems Corporation and again in 2008 by Agilent Technologies of Santa Clara, CA.
We’ll cover those years and more about Oliver’s philosophy in the second part of the series.