It may be surprising to learn that Francky Catthoor, a distinguished imec scientist, KU Leuven professor, expert author, and IEEE fellow, is primarily driven by a passion that transcends science.
“I don’t look down on scientific results. Personally, my passion is achieving cooperation between people, disseminating the ways to reach cooperation, and showing how cooperation enables success. Engineering and research are good vehicles to project my passion because relevant engineering results in today’s societal context are too complex to achieve without strong collaboration, so success is easy to measure.” he said.
An unconventional career
Though his background is in control theory (MSc program), and high-level system synthesis techniques and architectural methodologies (PH.D.), his successful career is unconventional. It spans the gamut from deep submicron technology logic to memory, reliability to interconnect, and includes application domains like wireless communication, multimedia, biomedical wearables, IoT sensor nodes, machine learning, neuromorphic, smart photovoltaic modules and smart energy systems. Francky says he became a fellow at imec because it was the type of role where the meta principles he was enabling are strongly sharable across domains. "I never desired to be a specialized expert," he said. "I wanted to be as broad as possible. I didn't believe in restrictions on specific domains. I started from a fully holistic view and looked for how that meta knowledge could enable specific domains."
Francky was first attracted to engineering because he thought it would provide a stimulating environment that was open for a working style devoid of competition and conflict. Since his university experience with the publish-or-perish atmosphere didn't convince him that this kind of environment was well-achievable in academia, he was not initially motivated to earn his Ph.D. until one of imec's co-founders convinced him that imec was different. "One of my advisors convinced me that through imec's unique research environment bridging the path to product industry, I could collaborate and show the benefits of cooperation through my work. In the end, he was right—imec was such a place."
The proof is in the results, but the enabler is the collaboration
"I believe that the best scientific results are the consequence of good cooperation and not the other way around, but it has been a challenge to fully convince people. Most people are educated to believe that some form of competition is required to make progress. I was convinced from the very beginning that this was not the case, so I have spent my career proving it." For Francky, the proof came by forming high-performing groups of people (across the existing team and division walls) and cultivating imec's unique method of engaging with universities.
"As a team leader in the first years of my imec career, I took a non-traditional approach. I wanted to show that competition wasn't necessary, and that differences of opinion didn't need to be viewed as potential conflicts. So, I was considered a peculiar team leader. Still, I tried to show that if we could learn to see differences in a more positive context, we could use them to create reasonable, sensible, and helpful solutions for everybody. I also tried to attract people who were open to that approach, so my team consisted of less-competitive researchers."
He also structured high-impact collaborations between imec and academic institutions—a strategy that he eventually helped imec leaders deploy across diverse domains, across imec departments. "The university collaborations I was setting up were different in that they were not limited to a certain type of content, and universities were also contributing to imec teams. My peers started showing interest in implementing this strategy as they saw it working well in the system architecture domains I was involved with in the 90s. Over the last 20 years, I've worked to show that this approach could be activated everywhere. Establishing good collaborations leads to good scientific results. If you only devote your time to achieving excellent scientific results without also fostering good collaboration, then you are, at least partly, restricting the results," he believes.
Lighting the creative fire
Francky has learned that the best ideas come from developing a holistic set of principles based on exposure to highly diverse disciplines and supplying the brain with enough physical energy to keep all crucial components active. "I'm convinced that it's not mainly genetic elements that give you the possibility to acquire skills and become very good at something. Everything is environment and education. Everything is potentially overcome-able. Everything can be trained to a high extent. This is what I've been doing my whole life—learning and looking for where to learn." Francky says that he gets ideas from going everywhere, talking to many types of people, and reading many kinds of books to learn various principles. "All these seeds combine to form ideas- they enable creativity. You can have plenty of expertise, but expertise isn't on its own the basis of creativity. The more you expose yourself to diversity, the more principles you acquire, the more creativity you will have. So it comes from being open and exposing yourself to as many domains as possible."
The second part of stoking creative fire lies in brain science and physically giving your brain enough energy. "I'm a passionate cyclist, and cycling gives my brain the energy needed to be creative. Apart from cycling with friends and colleagues, I use solitary cycling to reflect and consider ways to innovate and to look ahead on what could go wrong in the directions I am heading. You can prevent a lot of failures this way. Problems should be prevented and not solved."
Advice for up-and-coming researchers
In terms of advice, Francky says it depends on what a researcher's life goals entail:
"If you would like to have broad, holistic influence, and not become a specialized expert, my advice would be to look for vast exposure, collaboration, and avoid competition. Competition is not going to help you at all to be broad—it will keep you narrow. On the other hand, if you would like to be a narrower specialist, then my advice would be to devote your main effort only in that direction. In this case, you have to be very committed to one area."
For both types of life goals, Francky says researchers need passion as a driver. "You need to be focused on and driven by something you have passion for…not because it's your job. If you go against your natural passion, you will not only experience personal problems, but it will also keep you from excelling."
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10 March 2021