COCHRAN
UNDERSEA TECHNOLOGY
 A Division of Cochran Consulting, Inc.
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About Cochran Consulting, Inc.

Reprinted with permission of The Dallas Morning News.

Richardson company reaches heights with portable underwater computers

02/04/2001

By Cheryl Hall / The Dallas Morning News

RICHARDSON – The man who gave the world the first computer-on-a-chip is taking his inventiveness to new depths.

Michael Cochran, who co-invented the microcomputer at Texas Instruments Inc. in the 1970s and then used this so-called miracle chip to build TI's first handheld scientific calculator, is now strapping powerful undersea computers around the wrists of U.S. Navy SEALs.

Last week, off Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, members of the Navy's elite special forces unit made the first official computerized decompression dives in U.S. military history using dive computers made by Cochran Undersea Technology, a small company tucked in the industrial core of Richardson's tech corridor.

The SEALs donned an "aggressive" version of a Cochran wrist-worn dive computer already being sold to scuba shops that allows recreational divers to go deeper, stay under longer and come up without getting the bends.

Divers need to know how long they can stay down at specific depths and how to safely surface without forming nitrogen bubbles in their blood, which can be painful or even cause paralysis. In very rare cases, the bends can be fatal.

Once back on the surface, divers can download critical dive data into a PC to track their progress.

But dive computers are no easy design feat.

"The ocean is a fairly hostile environment. Computers very much don't like water," Mr. Cochran says in typical understatement.

The units have to run on a small battery and withstand enormous deep-sea pressures, radical temperature changes and rough use – all in a package small enough to wear like a watch but large enough to be easily viewed under water.

"These contradictory requirements are a real challenge, which is what I like about this field," says the 59-year-old founder of Cochran Consulting Inc., who, despite 70 domestic patents and several significant inventions, has worked in relative obscurity for most of his 39-year electronics career.

"Wow," was his one-word response to news last week that his dive computer had passed several years of extensive testing by the Navy Experimental Diving Unit in Panama City, Fla., and is now officially approved for SEAL use.

One last hurdle

Capt. Frank Butler, biomedical research director for the Navy Special Warfare Community, says the new dive computers will enable the military to make quantum advances in vital decompression research.

"If you get bent and I don't during a dive, we'll be able to use the computer to check out exactly why," says the former SEAL platoon commander, who was in Hawaii to coordinate the inaugural dives. "Calculating decompression using tables and without a computer has been very difficult. This is a huge step for SEAL divers and SEAL submerged operations."

Barring unforeseen problems during the next six months of actual ocean use, the units would then receive the mighty stamp of approval from the Navy and that would open up sales throughout the U.S. armed forces, as well as to NATO forces.

"If all this comes to pass, this single product most likely will double the size of the company in revenue and obviously dramatically increase our profitability," says Mr. Cochran. "That global military market could be very significant for us as opposed to the highly competitive and somewhat limited recreational market that we've been in."

The company Mr. Cochran formed in 1986 is an unlikely hybrid: One half builds undersea software and equipment, and the other half does intellectual property consulting. Combined revenue could be as much as $15 million if the Navy business kicks in.

In one wing, 15 electrical, mechanical and software engineers disassemble products, study detailed technical drawings and research the intricacies of specific patents involved in infringement suits and licensing agreements.

On any given day, the high-minded group might be "unbuilding," or reverse-engineering, talking toys, television sets, microwaves, PCs and, of course, semiconductors for key clients such as TI, Motorola, Tandy and numerous Asian semiconductor manufacturers.

The vast majority of infringement cases are settled out of court. But if one actually goes to trial, Mr. Cochran and his staff testify as expert witnesses.

The rest of the 20,000-square-foot building houses Cochran Undersea Technology, where a staff of 40-plus dreams up, develops and assembles new gizmos for the diving world.

The intellectual property half generates the profits sucked up by expensive research and development needs of the dive half. But that may be about to change as the undersea products take off.

Mr. Cochran, who was smitten by the scuba bug while vacationing in the Bahamas 17 years ago, is pleased that his passion is about to become more profitable, but that's not how he gauges success.

"Money is always good, but that's not what motivates me," he says. "It's the opportunity to meet the challenge that gives me satisfaction."

Patent No. 4,074,351

Three patents hang in honor along the main hallway at TI's Forest Lane facility: one for Jack Kilby's integrated circuit, another to the team that developed the first handheld calculator and the third, Patent No. 4,074,351, issued to Michael Cochran and Gary Boone, for inventing the microcomputer.

On Feb. 18, 1978, The New York Times spotlighted Mr. Cochran for his role in finding the elusive answer to putting more than 20,000 elements of a computer onto a single silicon chip. In the accompanying photo, he holds the Times-dubbed "miracle chip" and TI's first commercial product, a handheld scientific calculator that Mr. Cochran developed on his off-hours.

Rather than getting a big head about his 15 minutes of fame, Mr. Cochran was slightly annoyed by the publicity because he had to wear a three-piece suit for the photo.

Michael James Cochran grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he was bored to death by high school, refused to do his homework and still graduated in the top 10 percent of his class of 1959. What did get his mental juices flowing was a job his senior year repairing TVs and radios for a neighborhood store.

So he went to technical school at the local junior college. He took his graduation finals a semester early so he could take a job with a missile project for RCA. For three years, he lived aboard ships tracking missiles launched from Cape Canaveral, followed by a stint working on monitoring equipment for the Gemini test flights.

"It was 'bleeding-edge' technology – very challenging, no politics or BS – just damn the torpedoes and do it," he recalls fondly.

In 1969, while working for a start-up in California, Mr. Cochran built a prototype of the world's first scientific desktop calculator, which could do complicated algorithmic and metric functions and was about the size of an IBM Selectric typewriter.

That invention won Industrial Research magazine's designation as one of the 100 most innovative products in 1970, the same year that steel-belted radial tires were honored.

During this project, he'd worked with engineers at TI who were struggling to build a microcomputer – a computer on a single silicon chip. "TI called out of the blue and said, 'We want you to come help us get the ox out of the ditch,'" Mr. Cochran recalls. He joined TI in Houston and threw himself into the microcomputer project.

On the morning of July Fourth 1971, he looked into the microscope and discovered that one of his test chips actually worked.

"It was really kinda funny, because it was a holiday and a Sunday, and there was nobody to tell. So I called Joey," he says, nodding to his wife, who now ramrods the day-to-day business affairs of their company.

Silver-certificate dollar bills

For that basic U.S. patent of the microcomputer – and for each of the other 38 patents earned at TI during his 13-year tenure there – Mr. Cochran earned a silver-certificate dollar bill.

"If you get a patent like that today, it's big bucks. But it wasn't back then," he says. "When I had nearly 40 silver certificates, I said, 'Screw it,' and we went out and had a Mexican supper at El Fenix with them."

There is an inexplicable seven-year gap between the invention of the microcomputer and the awarding of its patent to Mr. Cochran and his boss, suggesting that TI might not have realized what it really had. Mr. Cochran says only that it was a complicated procedure that got hung up at several junctures.

There were other hang-ups that led to his departure from the company he still lovingly considers part family.

In the early '80s, Mr. Cochran tried to steer TI into the cellular phone business, but his project was canceled. Then he made a breakthrough toward creating a high-speed processor.

"But the world didn't need a faster processor – or so my boss said. The world needed artificial intelligence," Mr. Cochran says sarcastically. "It was frustrating, and I didn't see that changing. When I left TI, I was the company's Number 1 patent holder."

He quit but didn't stay away long. In 1988, Mr. Cochran, who'd gone into consulting, ran into the head of TI's patent department, who needed help with infringement issues involving several of Mr. Cochran's patents.

Mr. Cochran also had developed a bulky, underwater diver tracking system used by NASA to train astronauts in a massive swimming pool that simulated a weightless environment. He figured if he could compress the system into something more portable, he could sell it to recreational divers.

In 1989, he married his patent consulting with the underwater work, hired two employees and moved the company out of the couple's spare bedroom and into 600 square feet of industrial space.

For the next four years, his patent consulting paid the bills while he worked on his miniaturized undersea computer.

Learning process

Finally, in 1993, Joey and Michael Cochran headed to the scuba industry's annual trade show with the first-ever wireless, wrist-worn dive computer. Their instant smash hit became an instant monumental problem because their manufacturer abruptly backed out of the deal.

They had no experience in manufacturing, but Joey and Michael decided to make the intricate computers themselves.

"It was a definite learning process," Joey says, laughing. "We hired a million people and made thousands of mistakes."

The labor content was too high, the quality was poor, and the company experienced severe cash-flow problems. In the midst of this turmoil, Michael suddenly needed a kidney transplant.

Other than that, it was a walk in the park.

"But you can't stop when you have a tiger by the tail," says Joey, casting a knowing glance at her husband of 36 years. "Michael did his dialysis in the office and worked full time until the day before his transplant."

They never turned to outside money and steadfastly avoided "vulture capitalists." Today, they own the building and everything in it.

The company has cut its workforce in half yet it produces three times as much as it did in the early days with a return rate of less than 1 percent. Most returned units come back because the diver has opened the case to see how it works, he says. "We call these curiosity failures."

Rusty Berry, CEO of Scuba Schools of America, one of the largest dive retailers in Southern California, sells about 70 of Cochran's units a year – largely the higher-end $1,250 model.

"When it's a matter of life support, money is not much of an issue," he says. "Cochran is the very best diving computer in the industry."

Cochran Undersea was booked up at last month's dive industry trade show in New Orleans with dealers from around the United States and Canada wanting to carry its line of wrist-worn and console-mounted computers, which retail for between $250 and $1,500, and other equipment and software.

In the future, the name might expand beyond the sea. The company is in the early stages of developing a small computer system that will help firefighters monitor their air supplies and has a motion sensor that emits a locator alarm if the firefighter becomes immobilized.

"The opportunity is huge," says Mr. Cochran, "bigger than the undersea stuff and easier in some respects, because it doesn't have to withstand the pressure of being 100 meters under water."

Cheryl Hall is business columnist for The Dallas Morning News . Ideas at Work is intended as a forum for ideas and opinions of interest.