When it comes to teaching the "real world" a thing or two about technology, the University of California at Berkeley is on a roll.
Two weeks ago, three students from the computer science department at UC Berkeley--or "Cal" to alums--announced they had "cloned" the identity chip to a digital cellular phone in less than three hours. That feat, which the industry had claimed was impossible, could seriously compromise the privacy and security of cell phone users.
The announcement was only the latest by the group, which also has exposed serious security flaws in Netscape Communications' Navigator browser and in the 40-bit encryption algorithm that most companies use in products shipped outside the United States.
A day later, Inktomi, an Internet search and caching start-up that began as a Cal research project, announced plans to go public, promising to make a number of its twenty-something and thirty-something executives instant multimillionaires.
The university boasts other projects that are drawing the attention of venture capitalists, policy makers, and federal judges who hold sway over the high-tech industry.
Not just fame but fortune is coming to UC Berkeley from the various projects. By contract, the University of California owns the rights to all technologies developed on its campuses--and often generates revenues from them, according to a spokesman for the UC's office of technology transfer.
Cal is not alone in its success. Dozens of universities, including MIT, Stanford, and the University of Illinois (which gave birth to Mosaic, the first widely distributed Web browser), are the incubators for high-tech breakthroughs. But Berkeley in particular has been on a winning streak of late.
Inktomi's move to go public, along with the department's announcement that it cracked the security system in a popular type of cellular phone, are just two examples. Others include the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, which has consulted for staffers of the Senate Judiciary Committee regulators seeking advice on how best to build a case against Microsoft; and ProxiNet, a Berkeley-based company founded by three Cal alums who write Internet software for handheld devices. The company is negotiating "seed funding" with a venture capital firm.
"One of Cal's increasing strengths is its ties to industry and the strong emphasis on technology transfer," said David Wagner, a graduate student in the school's computer science department. Along with fellow grad student Ian Goldberg, he has made headlines throughout the past three years for exposing security flaws in widely used technologies.
"It's nice to actually have some relevance to the world rather than sit in an ivory tower," he added.
Wagner and Goldberg first came to prominence three years ago, when they discovered a flaw in Netscape's browser that could allow a person to access encrypted information passing between a Web user and an Internet server.
Since then, they have uncovered security flaws in other widely used products as well. Last year, for instance, they cracked security codes used in cell phones throughout North America. The move prompted the Cellular Telephone Industry Association--which sets standards for cell phones in the United States--to subject their protocols to outside review for the first time.
The company had its genesis in a 1994 research project Brewer conducted with then graduate student Paul Gauthier, now a vice president of Inktomi.
"I wasn't expecting to start a company," said Brewer, 31, who added that the real push came in the fall of 1995, when a prototype of their project was outperforming Lycos and Infoseek, the industry leaders at the time.
"It was just prior to Netscape going [public]," he added. "There was a pretty big froth [among venture capitalists] about how important the Internet was."
Today, Inktomi has won praise for its "parallel computing" technology--which combines the resources of dozens of workstations to create a "virtual computer" that is able to tackle extremely complex tasks. Running on 166 workstations with more than 330 microprocessors, Inktomi's system is one of the largest and fastest available.
Following in Inktomi's footsteps is ProxiNet. Currently, the company is pushing another former research project, an advanced Web browser for the Pilot, a handheld device made by 3Com. The software, called ProxiNet, is the only browser for the device that offers advanced features such as graphics and the ability to fill out online forms.
Armando Fox, a Cal student and ProxiNet's chief technology officer, said the company has received seed funding with a "leading venture firm and private investors," and now is closing a first round of financing. He declined to provide names, citing confidentiality agreements. The company expects to release the first commercial version of ProxiWeb this summer.
On the legal, not scientific, front, Senate Judiciary Committee staffers investigating Microsoft consulted extensively with the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology for advice on how to identify potentially anticompetitive business practices and to discuss possible remedies.