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He’s got this job down to a science

People – January 2004

He’s got this job down to a science

Lasers and astrophysics are second nature to Bob McMahan. North Carolina’s newly appointed science adviser is the son of a physicist and had a childhood steeped in the principles of science. “Our dinner-table conversation was about laser properties,” the 42-year-old says.

The Department of Commerce seems to have found its Mr. Wizard in Mr. McMahan. He has worked for Harvard, consulted for the CIA and designed products for NASA. In addition to his new job at Commerce, which he started in September, he’s a professor of physics and astronomy at UNC Chapel Hill.

As science adviser, McMahan confers with Gov. Mike Easley and Commerce Secretary Jim Fain on science- and technology-related matters and is executive director of the N.C. Board of Science and Technology. His aim is to promote the growth of a knowledge-based economy in a state long reliant on manufacturing. He meets with entrepreneurs, professors, economic developers and legislators on issues such as technology transfer from universities, favorable business tax policies and job creation.

Growing up in Florida, McMahan soaked up knowledge from his dad and uncle, North Carolina natives who in the ’70s formed Control Laser, one of the nation’s largest makers of gas-ion lasers — used, for example, in the first laser printers. McMahan got bachelor’s degrees in physics and art history from Duke in 1982. After a doctorate in physics from Dartmouth University in 1986, he accepted a fellowship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

He started McMahan Research Laboratories Inc. in 1987 while at Harvard. “It started with me, my Macintosh computer and my kitchen table,” McMahan says. The company, which grew to 25 employees and was profitable, produced light-measurement and spectral-measurement equipment. An early customer was NASA. The company also did contract engineering for companies such as IBM.

McMahan moved the company from the Boston area to Research Triangle Park in 1989 because North Carolina’s business-tax policy was friendlier. In 2000, he sold it to Switzerland’s GretagMacbeth Holding AG for an undisclosed amount.

In 2002, McMahan began commuting from the Triangle to Washington, D.C., as a senior technology strategist for In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA. Six months into the job, Fain recruited him for the $98,408-a-year science adviser post, which had been vacant for three years, on a tip from Monica Doss, president of the Council for Entrepreneurial Development.

McMahan saw chemistry between his background and the demands of the job. “I wouldn’t have left the CIA for many things. But I was intrigued. Each element of this role draws on my past experience.”

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