Jerry Woodall is an IBM legend.

The second most prolific inventor in the history of Big Blue, Woodall has played a tremendous role in semiconductor research. About half of the semiconductor products around today are due to Woodall’s three decades of work in the company’s research labs. He now holds 67 U.S. patents and was awarded the National Medal of Technology last spring by President Bush.

Woodall, who left IBM for academia nine years ago, is now a professor of electrical engineering at Yale University. He is in the Triangle today to speak at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering on indium arsenide terrahertz transistors and their applications in LEDs and broadband technology. (The talk is scheduled for 12:45 p.m. in the main lecture hall in the Nello Teer Building on the Duke campus.)

Local Tech Wire called Woodall at his Yale office to discuss the the growing importance of university research and technology transfer, as well as the current state of affairs at IBM.

You’ve worked both in a corporate research lab and a university research lab. Is there a difference in the environment?

When I started at IBM in 1962, it was mostly curiosity-driven research. Now, it’s much more focused on projects that have some market potential. I never worked on any product development while I was there; mostly I did solid-state engineering projects, working with gallium arsenide and other compounds. But you don’t see that pie-in-the-sky research going on anymore. The labs have to justify their costs, and they don’t fund any projects that don’t work into the business plan.

I think that’s the biggest change I’ve seen, and it’s also the difference now between working for a major corporation and a university. You can still do the curiosity-driven projects at a university. That’s why a lot of people have left industrial labs in recent years to work for smaller companies or universities.

So there’s more freedom to experiment in an academic setting?

Yale is fine with any projects I do as long as they have a teaching element.

You also have a bigger customer set (at a university). You’re not just working for your company; you’re working for any number of companies that might be interested in your research.

Do you see companies looking more to universities now than in the past to develop the next breakthroughs in technology?

Absolutely. Corporations can’t afford to do everything, especially in this (economic) environment, so they have to pick and choose what they do internally. Universities have become much more important to filling the gaps that are left. In fields like optoelectronics, I think all of the new technology in the future will come from universities and the small startups they form. The large companies will just buy the hardware (the startups) produce.

Have you spun off any of your research?

Two years ago, I created LightSpin Technologies, which is developing photonic devices. We’re a fabless company based in Bethesda, Maryland. N.C. State is involved in the company; they do part of the materials processing down on Centennial Campus. We’re expecting a lot of near-term commercial success.

You mentioned that many people have left corporate research labs in recent years. Is it good for business to have the best and brightest minds working at startups or in a university lab? Or does it really matter where the technology research occurs as long as it gets done?

I don’t see universities as draining off talent from business. Universities used to just do research in the science behind products. Now, the research is becoming much more practical and is working with companies to develop next-generation products.

I got into academics, first at Purdue and now here at Yale, to train students to work in business. I’m trying to prepare them while they are Ph.D. candidates by having them work in a startup and get that entrepreneurial exposure, rather than have them sit through a class. I think that’s necessary because I don’t think any corporate lab, whether it’s IBM or Lucent or somebody else, if they recover from the current downturn, will ever get back to what they were doing when I started.

What do you think of IBM’s current situation?

I haven’t kept up with things since I left there, but they’ve been through these cycles before and have come back strong. I think that will happen again. I hope it will. I still own IBM stock and have a pension, so I’m rooting for them.

The difference is that they don’t have the market dominance that they used to in a number of fields. But they still are well positioned in many areas and should be able to take advantage of the economic recovery, whenever it happens.