Each and every time Larry Sumney uses a high-performance cell phone or a top-end laptop computer or the latest tech gadgets from HDTVs to GPS systems, he marvels at the wizardry that makes each work.

So simple, so fast, so reliable – and so taken for granted.

“Most people do not understand the sophistication of a cell phone or an iPod or navigation systems,” said Sumney, the chief executive officer of the Semiconductor  Research Corporation, which is based in RTP.

“These are extremely sophisticated devices that required considerable brainpower to build,” he added. “The intellectual challenges are huge.”

The SRC, which Sumney has led since its founding 25 years ago by the Semiconductor Industry Association, has been a force behind development of chip and transistor technology that makes these devices work. And on Friday, in Washington, D.C., Sumney and the SRC were recognized for their collective efforts.

President Bush and the U.S. Department of Commerce presented the SRC with the National Medal of Technology.

SRC Is Global ‘Research Force’

SRC may not be as widely known a name as Intel or AMD, but within chip industry and the research world SRC doesn’t lack recognition.
Acknowledged as one of the first high-tech consortia, it has grown into a global force in pushing the frontiers of transistor chip technology. Most of the major industry players, such as Intel, IBM and AMD, are members. And many leading research universities, including N.C. State, Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have received funding for research. Sumney noted that more than $40 million in research dollars has gone to the Triangle universities, with most going to NCSU.

Over the years the SRC has invested $854 million in semiconductor research while working with more than 5,500 students and more than 1,200 faculty at 218 universities around the world.

The SRC raises funds from the private sector and also receives federal grants to push improvements in chip development. Sumney, who has been involved in chip research since 1978, noted that SRC has enabled research that private companies could not afford to pay for themselves.

In fact, Intel and IBM recently disclosed an advance in chip technology that SRC helped fund. By incorporating an exotic metal known as hafnium, Intel and IBM will soon produce chips that can be smaller, manufactured more cheaply, pack more punch and produce less heat. The companies expect improvements in chips for devices ranging from consumer products to computers.

In picking the SRC to receive the honor, the Department of Commerce said the SRC had created “the world’s largest and most successful university research force to support the rapid growth of the semiconductor industry; for proving the concept of collaborative research as the first high-tech research consortium; and for creating the concept and methodology that evolved into the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors.”

‘The Medal Means a Lot’

Sumney couldn’t help but recall the SRC’s beginnings when the effort was launched at the Research Triangle Institute (now RTI International). U.S. leadership in technology was being serious challenged by Japan. The medal helps puts the SRC’s efforts in perspective, he said.

“The medal means a lot, it truly does,” Sumney explained. One of the group’s other original employees, Robert Burger of Cary, attended the festivities in Washington. (The other, Richard Alberts, is no longer living.) When Sumney arrived at his hotel in Washington, he found a letter in his room from one of the men who picked him for the job – Eric Bloch, a longtime IBM executive and the first chair of the SRC board. The kind words it contained made Sumney feel even better about the award that he said belongs to all the people and companies who have worked for and participated in SRC’s efforts.

“Personally, when you give 25 years of your life to an organization and to see that organization recognized for something like this is quite rewarding,” he said.

Sumney is a graduate of Washington and Jefferson College with honors in physics, and he later earned a Master’s in engineering administration at George Washington University. His career in technology research started in 1962 at the U.S. Navy Research Lab, and he later led one of the Pentagon’s first, big chip research efforts. In 1987 he was recognized as one of the pioneers in the field.

Despite his tenure at SRC and more than 40 years of work in the chip field, Sumney is far from bored. Under his direction, the SRC recently made efforts to expand internationally, and the chip technology itself keeps changing. For example, the SRC recently received a $2 million grant for research into nanotechnology.

“I’ll be here for a while,” Sumney said when asked if he had considered retirement. “My health is good, and I love my job. Every single day there is a whole new set of challenges. There are always very exciting and rewarding things to do.

“We work with students and university and industry people from all over the world. We also work with federal and state technologists. Put that all together and this is a wonderful place to be.”