Lunatics Running the TI Asylum

Categories: News
In the September 4 issue of Fortune--see, Unfair Park is so far ahead of the curve that we're into the future now--there's a lengthy piece about the so-called "Lunatic Fringe" at Texas Instruments. (We'd link you to the story, but it's not even on Fortune's Web site yet.) Leading the charge at TI, writes Peter Lewis, is Gene Frantz, who is TI's principal fellow and business development manager of digital signal processing. But his title, Lewis says, "tells you nothing about how he spends much of his time: searching for and encouraging all manner of lunatics and visionaries." It's a fascinating tale about how one guy and his posse of techno-nuts are reshaping the company best known for making most of the world's cell-phone chips and plotting its (and our) future:


"Patient and relentless as a hunter, he stalks his quarry among TI's engineers as well as among academics, inventors and employees of small tech companies all over the world. 'What I look for in these companies is the wild-eyed optimist who's going to tackle the market,' Frantz says.

For example, in February he invited Israeli entrepreneur Josef Segman to show an invention of his to engineers at TI's annual developers' conference. Segman's device is a cousin to Dr. McCoy's tricorder from Star Trek: Point it at a patient, and it tells you his vital signs. It's not quite up to 23rd-century design specs yet--its blood pressure and other readings on the TI executives who crowded into a Dallas hotel room to check it out were off a bit--but the thing is on its way to working. Frantz told Segman, 'I see you've done this. But I don't believe what I see.'

Frantz is the dean of an informal and amorphous group of TI engineers (and their peers and contacts outside the company) who call themselves the Lunatic Fringe. They are senior people who have been given free rein to follow their curiosity wherever it goes. 'There's this continuum between total chaos and total order,' Frantz explains."

Frantz is also working with the University of California's Doheny Eye Institute, where they're working on a retinal implant that would allow blind people to regain some of their vision; how very Six Million Dollar Man. The story will be on stands, and on the site, this week. --Robert Wilonsky


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