eong H. Kim's mission is to transform Bell Labs from its 82-year history as the crown jewel of American basic tech research — source of the laser, the transistor and the LED — into a profit-producing arm of global telecom giant Alcatel-Lucent. Since being named Bells Labs president in April of 2005, Kim has learned the difficulty of taking 3,000 scientists comfortably immersed in a scholarly research culture and reshaping them into 1,200 techies racing to bring innovations to market. It's really the creative destruction of an American icon, and the job fairly screamed for someone like Kim, an immigrant who had proven himself as a nuclear submarine officer, a billion-dollar tech boy wonder, and a multi-disciplinary engineering professor.
Jeong H. Kim was born in Korea in 1961, the second of four children. His parents separated when he was five. Under Korean custom he and his siblings went to live with his father. The family immigrated to Anne Arundel County, Maryland in 1994. That kicked off a hard-luck period that is slapstick-comedy pathetic. The family lived in government-subsidized housing. All of Kim's clothes were bought for fifty cents apiece at thrift shops. His brother, three years older, picked on him constantly. Jeong was a shy kid who got good grades and didn't get into trouble. That didn't keep his struggling father, who had to walk to work, from disowning Jeong. With nowhere to turn Jeong, 16, asked his math teacher for help. The couple let him live in their basement. Working nights from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. at a 7-11, Jeong made enough to pay rent. He got 3-4 hours of sleep each afternoon after school.
These tribulation didn't keep Jeong Kim from earning a scholarship to Johns Hopkins where he met his future wife. While still an undergrad he learned to build his own PC, then joined a professor and some fellow students in a tech startup. After a brief period of success, the company ultimately folded in 1986 after IBM brought out its standard-setting PC. Meawhile Jeong graduated in 1982, then joined the navy. During he 7-year stint he ultimately earned a commission as a nuclear submarine officer. While still in the navy Kim married, had two daughters and started work on a master's in technical management from Johns Hopkins with eye toward starting his own company.
With his wife's encouragement Kim finished earning his masterŐs degree and left the navy in 1989. He went to work for Allied Signal developing satellite systems at the naval research lab. That experience prompted him to focus on network reliability engineering for his PhD from the University of Maryland. In 1991 he joined a few others in starting a consulting business. Eventually he decided it was more profitable as a one-man operation which, thanks to his navy background, won a defense contract. The consulting work led to the creation of a system that allowed the transmission of voice, data and video over robust field systems that could be used by the military. Kim dubbed it the Yurie box after his infant second daughter. That period represented the zenith of Kim's entrepreneurial risk-taking. He went into $400,000 debt by taking out a mortgage on the family home and maxing out his credit cards.
Thanks to military demand, Yurie Systems became profitable. Rather than complacently enjoying the profits, Kim set about building Yurie Systems into a major company. He started by bringing in his high school math teacher and worked up to hiring former Secretary of Defense William Perry. Recognizing the potential for leveraging the Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) standard from defense contracts to commercial use, by 1997 Kim won recognition as one of the hottest of tech entrepeneurs.
Yurie Systems was precisely the kind of telecom innovator that attracted Lucent (formerly AT&T) which had embarked on a bold push toward the leading edge of telecom innovation. In 1998 Lucent plunked down $1 billion for Kim's company. At the age of 37 Kim could have retired with a $500 million nestegg. He chose to stay on as president of Lucent's Broadband Carrier Networks. A year later he was named COO, then president, of Lucent's Optical Network Group. In 2001 Kim rejected Lucent's offer to become president of Bell Labs. Instead, he opted for more academic experience with an engineering professorship at the University of Maryland. He also used $5 million of his fortune to endow the University with the stunning Jeong H. Kim Engineering Building.
In April 2005 Alcatel-Lucent asked Kim again to head up Bell Labs. This time Kim accepted. Since then he has created an entreprneurial program that funds promising product ideas generated by the Labs' researchers. Among the dozen or so products that have been green-lighted by Kim is the femtocell, a device for extending the reach of broadband data and voice networks into the interiors of buildings. Another is a device portentiously entitled the OmniAccess Nonstop Laptop Guardian. Other more secretive projects are also in the works in Kim's epic quest to prove that giant corporations can also be fountainheads of technological innovation. It's hard to imagine anyone better to prove or disprove the concept.