MSE to honor Bill LaFontaine with Distinguished Alumni Award

By: Eric Laine

The Cornell Department of Materials Science and Engineering is proud to honor William “Bill” LaFontaine, Ph.D. ’90 with the 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award, in recognition of his outstanding career as a leader in industry. 

As General Manager for IP and Vice President for Research Business Development at IBM, Bill played a key role in bringing new technologies to market and driving translational research efforts. Bill was a member of the MSE Advisory Council for nearly 20 years and continues to serve on the Cornell Engineering College Council.

The award will be presented at the annual Gala Awards Dinner and poster session on Friday, May 12, 2023, an event that will also recognize outstanding MSE undergraduates, Master’s and Ph.D. students for excellence in teaching and research. Dr. LaFontaine will give the keynote address.

We spoke with Bill via email about his experience in Cornell Engineering and his perspective on the future of engineering and creating impact with societal benefit through materials science.

What are the values and skills that students acquire in Cornell Engineering that prepare them for leadership roles in tech industries?

Cornell Engineering graduates learn how to work in diverse teams on projects with broad scope and time pressures. This is key when many innovations that happen in technology are cross border, time zone and collaboration is key. 

Bill LaFontaineLeadership which comes out of the project teams is highly sought after by companies because that is how startups and emerging tech companies establish themselves. One should not underestimate the interpersonal skill development. Being smart is only the beginning of what companies look for. Teams are a force multiplier that Cornellians are well versed at.

Who was the mentor who most impacted your academic career at Cornell?

The late Professor Che-Yu Li. Working with Professor Li was not easy. He was more of an Engineer than a Scientist so his practical views on Research and how to approach a problem I have used my entire career. Thinking several steps ahead, seeing shifts in technology early on and pivoting the work towards new spaces. 
In addition, Professor Li had great confidence in me in the early days of graduate school when I doubted my ability to succeed. At my A exam he said I will not ask any questions; I would not let you take the exam if you were not ready. If you get stuck, I will nudge you the right way and he did. 

Lastly, Professor Li taught me the value of time. Professor Li said, the time to get a Ph.D. is a constant. How much years it takes you is up to you. Taking ownership of getting a Ph.D., and doing it was the single best lesson he provided me.

Why should students who are interested in technologies for societal benefit pursue a degree in materials science and engineering?

Right now, climate change is a key agenda item for the tech industry. When we think about ways to address a warming planet and the overabundance of CO2, ideals like carbon sequestration are top of mind. Those ideas are materials science problems at their core. How to create materials and processes which can absorb CO2 and lock it in over time. These are also what I call new Materials Science problems because they incorporate new ways of identifying materials leveraging data science, AI along with experimental capabilities. 

The field of Materials Science is getting broader every day because of the new tools, like AI, that can be incorporated into the scientific method to discover new materials faster than ever before. The next generation of Materials Scientists will be adopters of computer science, chemistry, engineering in ways I could never have imagined. If you want to improve our quality of life, being a Materials Scientist is a great career to have.

Is there anyone you would like to acknowledge or thank with regard to the MSE Distinguished Alumni Award?

This alumni award would not have been possible without my long-term partnership with the department, including director Lara Estroff and especially Emmanuel Gianellis, who I have worked with since graduation. I would also like to thank former Cornell trustee and fellow MS&E graduate Greg Galvin who has worked with me on the MS&E advisory board.

Dr. LaFontaine recently retired as General Manager, Intellectual Property and VP, Research Business Development. He was responsible for IBM’s IP business including technology licensing, patent licensing and sales, and joint development and research collaborations globally. 

In Bill’s previous position as Vice President, Patent Software & Services, IP Licensing, he was responsible for managing and commercially leveraging IBM’s patent portfolio, as well as building IBM’s revenue and profit opportunities through commercialization of our software and services Intellectual Property assets. 

Dr. LaFontaine also held the position of General Manager, Global Technology Services, Middle East and Africa. Bill had the mandate to drive hyper growth for IBM services business in this emerging market including opening new countries in Africa for IBM. During his tenure in Africa, IBM expanded its services operations in more than thirteen countries. Prior to this role, Dr. LaFontaine held various executive positions in Corporate Strategy, Patent Licensing and Worldwide Semiconductor Sales for IBM. Throughout Dr. LaFontaine’s 20+ year career at IBM, he has been on assignment in the US, Japan, Singapore and South Africa.

Dr. LaFontaine holds a Bachelor's degree in Metallurgical Engineering from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and received his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Materials Science and Engineering from Cornell University.

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