Dr. Chao Wang is chief technology officer at Cryomech, the Mattydale company that is a world leader in solving problems in cryogenics, the branch of physics that deals with temperatures approaching absolute zero. That’s the temperature where atomic motion stops. Absolute zero is minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit. Such low temperatures usually are measured on the Kelvin scale, in which absolute zero is 0 K.
“We have products that can get to 1.2 Kelvin at Cryomech now,” Wang said.
Super-cold temperatures are used to liquefy elements like helium. How is that useful?
“Without liquid helium and cooling devices below 4 K, a lot of physics laboratories would close,” Wang said. “There would be no superconductivity, no hospital MRI, no advanced analytical instruments and detectors.”
The next frontier for Cryomech?
Support for quantum computing, the enormously powerful and fast computers that work on the molecular (quantum) level. Cryomech has developed cryocoolers to be used by manufacturers that take temperatures down to 10 milli-Kelvin, about one-hundredth of a degree above absolute zero. Temperatures near absolute zero make breakthroughs possible in quantum computing.
Wang, understated and soft-spoken, is excited about the possibilities: “It could be a real and very good market in the future, and it’s very interesting to us. We did the research for the technology and the market.”
Tell me about growing up and early leadership roles and influences.
I grew up in Suzhou, in China. My father was a general manager of a factory. My mother was an accountant.
In school, I was a leader of the class – such as class president in high school and college.
I always liked technologies. I started in refrigeration study while I was a bachelor student. I went to university at Shanghai Institute of Mechanical Engineering and graduated in 1985. Then, I continued with an M.S. and a Ph.D. at Xi’an Jiaotong University. My Ph.D. subject was cryogenic engineering, specifically on pulse tube refrigeration. I began working as a post-doctoral researcher and an assistant professor in a cryogenic lab at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. I worked there for two years and became an associate professor.
Then, I got an award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for outstanding young scientists to do post-doctoral research in Germany. I went to Germany and worked as a visiting scientist at the University of Giessen, where I developed the first commercial 4-Kelvin pulse tube cryocooler, which was a new generation cryocooler. Then, I met Peter Gifford in 1997 at a conference in Germany.
What’s your advice for effective leadership?
I still don’t think I’m really a good leader, but I’m a good innovator here. I’ll try to answer your leadership questions a little bit, but I’ll probably talk only a little bit about leadership. Good leadership is to inspire and to motivate your employees to create the good environment to let them work innovatively or happily so they can have more creative thinking and be more motivated to do things.
What’s your advice to create that kind of environment?
You try to understand what they are interested in and good at. Give them projects or give them work that they are interested to do. Give them instructions or guidance to let them to move in the right direction.
When they complete a project, you want them to feel they are successful. They have a good feeling about this.
So you want to create the environments that people want to work hard to complete what you give to them.
Describe the environment that allows people to feel engaged and to work hard.
I think of my role as kind of an explorer, looking for new technologies and development for our products. We choose projects that the market needs and present challenges.
I think most people like challenge. They like to have more creative thinking. If they like to do this job, they will have motivation. They won’t feel they were ordered and pushed to work. If you have the environment where you have to force them to do the work, it could create issues, create a problem.
That goes back to inspire and motivate. How does a leader inspire? How does a leader motivate?
You’ve got to recognize people. Everybody wants to be a successful, so you want to create the environment that will give them that kind of feeling when they complete their work. They want to feel successful. Help them do that.
When you see a leader you admire, what qualities do you see in that person?
Peter Gifford knew how to inspire. He would treat employees very well. He had very good character. He understood the market. So I learned a lot from him.
He would get excited, and his passion could sometimes lead to some yelling. (Laughter) He was passionate. I’m passionate, but he was much much louder. (Laughter) I used to yell a little bit about something I didn’t like, but I changed. I read a lot about successful leaders. I learned lessons that way and I learned from Peter.
What attributes do you see in poor leadership?
Poor leadership has no sense of urgency. Leaders should have a sense of urgency. In a crisis, you should be able to rely on the leader to inspire the employee and move quickly to solve the problem and to keep the company healthy. If the leader lets the problem slip away, if the leader didn’t notice the problems, then the company will fail.
Let me ask about innovation.
Yeah! This is stuff I’m more comfortable talking about. When we talk about leadership, I know I need those skills. I know I need to learn. So I read articles, and I watch what people do.
What does it take for a company to be innovative, to come up with the kind of innovations and inventions that Cryomech produces?
The first thing is to look into the market. Look to see: What’s in the market that fits your company?
There’s a lot of stuff you can do, but don’t try everything. What will fit your company size, culture and resources? Find something that can fit in there.
And then try to do something which would be a first in the world. So you don’t see competition from the beginning. You can catch the market quickly.
From our experience, we talk with customers. They ask for solutions. We analyze what we think we can do to achieve the goal.
We’re so heavily rooted in R&D and new product development, that innovation is not a conscious decision. It’s how we breathe. We innovate our manufacturing process. We’re innovative even sometimes with how we’ll take a customer payment and how we develop products. It’s so ingrained in our culture.
If we look at the Cryomech market, we dominate research markets, like universities and new technology research. So we focus on the new. We pay attention to the newest technology.
When we saw that the world was developing a helium shortage, we developed the products to solve or provide a solution for global laboratories to solve their helium shortage.
When we saw development in hydrogen products, like hydrogen fuel-cell cars and drones, we developed products to meet that market requirement.
We saw that a dilution refrigerator can reach 10 milli-Kelvin, very, very close to absolute zero, and researchers were using it for quantum computing. So we worked to quickly develop the right products to meet that market demand.
We work to be first. We focus on the frontiers of the world’s technology development. We work to be the number one system, the first system in the world.
Our competitors are the big companies – huge companies like a GE size. They are dominant in the commercial market. But in our market, actually the big companies are following and catching us. So we’re not in a position where we are catching our competitors.
It’s a company culture. Peter created the company philosophy – we didn’t focus on commercial, mass-production market yet. If you want to be a commodity commercial market, you need a lot of new investment in manufacturing.
Our current culture allows us to develop the more advanced system to meet the research market, to become the leader on the technology side.
We are nimble, able to change directions quickly. It’s an important aspect of effectively sparking innovation.
Does that translate to companies not in high-tech research? How would you advise leaders of those companies to spark innovation?
I think to embrace innovation is important to every company.
Central New York has a good industrial foundation. It’s good for special manufacturers and advanced manufacturers. I would advise them to find the market that’s not dominated by huge giant companies. You need to look for the new market or advanced stuff to grab the market.
This is where you need innovation, to find a new market and the right products for the market.
Hire the best people and unleash or encourage them to find a way to fill that need and take over that market.
One of the things that has worked for us, and we feel it might work for others, is to not be copying competitors. Know what your strength is and use that to develop a unique product for an undiscovered place.
What we try to emphasize that Cryomech does, we pay attention to the world’s new technology development. That’s one key success for Cryomech. For example, with quantum computing, it’s become really hot research around the world. There’s a lot of investment from the U.S., China, Europe.
So we notice this technology is in development and could become good in the future. So we start developing systems to support this type of product development.
We work closely with the end user. Once they develop the new stuff, they need a lot of technical support. We want to help make them successful.
This is what we watch for.
The weekly “CNY Conversation” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. To suggest a leader for a Conversation, contact Stan Linhorst at [email protected]. Last week featured Steve Case of Acropolis Realty Group, which develops downtown properties.
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