One way to gain a competitive advantage by harnessing brainpower is to hire independent contractors on a project-needed basis. This HR strategy also helps a company with cyclical sales better manage labor costs. Wong now has 15 independent contractors he uses for a variety of tasks. All are senior engineers who specialize in hardware or software niches and work on contracts that range from six months to three years. Similarly, Hines hires consultants and contract engineers to do everything from nanostructured film development to mixed-signal PC-board design. This allows her to tap high-level expertise she could not afford to employ full time.
Hines also has a research option agreement with Temple University and works closely with a team of about 10 undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral scientists led by Eric Borguet, a Ph.D. in chemistry, to develop film coatings for sensors that can be used on the products Applied is working on for NASA and a medical-diagnostic-device developer. "This is truly a collaborative effort," Hines points out. "The school loves the opportunity to give students real-world commercial experience, and if the scientists there come up with a patentable technology, I have the option to license it."