Brewer Science: A small-town technology giant

Karen

To say Rama Puligadda was apprehensive about moving to Rolla is an understatement. It was 1994 and her husband was considering taking a job at Missouri S&T.

“I can’t even describe my feelings at the time because I was so terrified of the place. We got here around 9 o’clock in the evening and everything was closed. We drove five minutes out of town and it looked like we were in a deserted area,” Puligadda said. “I told him, ’You can do the interview, but you’re not accepting this position regardless of what happens.’”

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Rama Puligadda

The small central Missouri town of Rolla was quite a contrast from her previous residences – her native home of New Delhi, India, and Cincinnati, where she attended graduate school. But her husband took the position, and she soon realized that for her, Rolla was an ideal place to start a family and a career.

With three separate master’s degrees in chemistry, polymer engineering/technology and chemical engineering, Puligadda was well-suited for a part-time position that was available at growing technology company Brewer Science. Little did she realize that she would become part of a company that was changing the face of the entire microelectronics industry.

Today, as head of Brewer Science’s advanced technology research and development department, Puligadda recruits scientists and technologists from around the world. The family atmosphere of the company and community is a strong selling point.

“I’m an immigrant, so for me it was very important to have a family around me. I found that in Rolla. I couldn’t have found that in a big city,” Puligadda said. “Yes, at first it is shocking, I tell prospective employees. I went through the same thing. That will change very fast because you will enjoy having the family atmosphere, the peace, the safety. You will have more time for family because you won’t be spending it in traffic.”

The most inspiring aspect of working at Brewer Science, however, is the ability to create and innovate every day, according to Puligadda.

Working at Brewer Science offers employees a unique dynamic: the opportunity to live in a quiet community and work for one of the most influential technology companies in the world.  Few realize that Brewer Science technology is found inside every smartphone, tablet and notebook computer on the market today.

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Dr. Terry Brewer

The heart and brain of these electronic devices is a thin piece of silicon, called a chip, which contains millions of microscopic electrical components and connections. In 1981, Dr. Terry Brewer patented a revolutionary anti-reflective coating that improves the process of transferring complex circuit patterns on chips by controlling the light reflecting off the chip, one of the most challenging steps in manufacturing tiny integrated circuits.

Without Brewer Science’s technology, electronics would not be as small, fast or affordable as they are today.

Dr. Brewer built a company around his discovery. But he didn’t stop there. Since 1981, Brewer Science has patented more than 400 technological discoveries and has become a global leader in developing and manufacturing innovative materials, processes and equipment for the reliable fabrication of cutting-edge micro-devices used in electronics such as smartphones, computers, tablets, digital cameras, televisions and LED lighting.

More than just a location, Missouri values also impact the culture of Brewer Science, said Chief Technical Officer Dr. Tony Flaim, who grew up in St. James, 10 miles from Brewer Science’s headquarters.

“The culture of the company is different from most Silicon Valley companies, and that comes partly from being in Missouri, I think,” said Flaim. “Things are meant to last here. There are so many companies, especially technology companies, which are formed with that exit plan in mind. Some brilliant guy comes out of a university and forms a successful company, but it’s all intended to be sold. That wasn’t the intention here. Our intention is to be here and have generations of people from this area working in this company.”

Flaim has worked for Brewer Science since its early days, when the company had fewer than 10 employees. He came back to central Missouri to join Brewer Science after working among a staff of 2,500 for Dow Chemical in Detroit.

brewer-science-technicianToday, Brewer Science employs more than 300 researchers, manufacturing technicians and support staff. Most work in Rolla, but the company has expanded with offices in Albany, NY, Austin, TX,  and Springfield, MO as well as Europe and Asia.

Growing the company to where it is today was not easy.

“Terry Brewer had a lot of commitment and grit to keep the company going, especially when we were often viewed as being outside of the main circle,” said Dr. Flaim. “While most of our competitors and customers were operating in places like Silicon Valley or in Asia, there was a lot of pressure to conform.”

Funding its own growth is another unusual path for a technology company, but it’s a move that has kept Brewer Science on solid ground.

“That’s very different in this industry,” said Dr. Flaim. “Brewer Science doesn’t have a lot of investors, and it’s not a public company. We’ve grown out of our earnings.”

The company’s innovative culture has fueled that growth, first with Terry Brewer’s discoveries and then through hundreds of innovations made by his co-workers. More than anything else, that is the secret to Brewer Science’s success.

“It took a lot more than just one single discovery to grow as a company over the last 35 years,” said Dan Brewer, executive director of marketing and intellectual property. “You can create one successful thing by luck, but you don’t continue growing on one thing.”

As the son of Terry Brewer, Dan Brewer has seen the company grow firsthand. He grew up with the company and understands the need to constantly innovate to stay ahead of the competition.

Brewer Science’s latest innovation is a new advanced manufacturing facility that was recently opened in Vichy, Missouri. The firm is different from many in the industry because it manufactures the products its researchers invent. The facility is seen as the highest level of state-of-the art innovation in advanced manufacturing.

“The cleanliness levels that are achieved in our new facility are unmatched,” said Brewer. “Basically, a human hand never touches the product, so it’s particle-free, dust-free and contamination-free.”

Brewer Science employees designed and operate the new facility. The facility is automated and is regarded as one of the cleanest manufacturing facilities of its kind in the world. It’s the latest milestone of the company, but certainly it won’t be the last.

“Sustainable growth for a U.S. company competing against companies 100 times our size, and still leading, is something to be proud of, and that’s why we see innovation as our future,” said Brewer.

Nothing lasts long in the technology industry. Inspiring Brewer Science researchers to discover that next technological breakthrough is the most critical part of Brewer Science’s business model.

“There are a lot of smart people everywhere,” said Brewer. “What makes us different is our culture, which allows innovation to occur, and that gives people the freedom to explore and develop and be creative. We give employees the ability to take risks and even fail. You don’t see that as much in large companies.”

It’s a conscious business decision that permeates every aspect of the company, from research and development to human resources and accounting.

“Real creativity can be the driver for growth as opposed to just how big your asset pile or investments might be,” said Brewer. “That’s our lifeblood. Creative innovation is how we win. It’s a very, very different culture and not one that everyone is necessarily going to be comfortable with. But if you have the right set of people that embrace innovation, then you can do really amazing things.”

Brewer Science gives new hires a great deal of responsibility by giving them challenging projects.

The company has developed a nationally recognized intern program to help find good employees. The interns work at Brewer Science for a few months, sometimes up to two years. Approximately 70 percent of the qualified interns are extended full-time employment.

“We give them wide-open, challenging projects and say, ‘Go figure out how to change the world.’ And for those that do, then we’ve got a great opportunity for you at Brewer Science,” said Flaim.

Twenty-one years ago, Flaim presented that challenge to Rama Puligadda. She has no regrets.

“I still enjoy every moment of my work,” said Puligadda. “My colleagues and I are very confident that we can solve technical challenges by using a better design, a better process, a new material. Most importantly, it’s not just science for the sake of science. We are solving world problems. We’re bringing products to market that meet today’s demands for better, faster, more functional electronic devices.”

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