The beat of a different drummer

From small laser companies come many of the technology innovations that will take this industry to its next level

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At this year’s ICALEO (International Congress on Applications of Lasers & Electro-Optics), held in San Francisco, a retro rock group, Beer’s Law, entertained attendees at the welcoming reception. This was the first, and last, public appearance of this group, which had its origin in an idea put forth a year ago by Ron Schaeffer (Photomachining Inc.). The thought was that LIA members with musical backgrounds might get together in San Francisco to entertain their peers at the annual social event.

Ron, a vocalist and guitarist, is nothing if not persistent, and over the course of the past year he cajoled, pleaded with, and finally threatened several associates to join him in performing. Agreeing to this madness were Len Migliore on keyboard and Tom Corboline on bass and acoustic guitar (both with Coherent Inc.), and yours truly on drums. I say “madness” because the group had only one session of practice and that was without me. For two weeks prior to the event, all we had to work with was a tape Ron made of the songs we would play.

Relegated to only a 15-minute tune-up because the room we were to appear in was being used for the San Francisco 49ers’ pregame meeting, we had the chutzpah to think we could pull this gig off. But we did, much to the surprise (and delight) of an audience of more than 150 attendees and my wife, who, by the way, had never heard me perform on the drums because my “garage” band dissolved before we married.

Ron, who has performed professionally, will play for anyone who will listen, and Tom plays frequently in a Bay Area band. Len is a very good musician but had never played in a band. And yours truly, as I said, hadn’t picked up the sticks for several decades. But, quickly coalescing into a semblance of a band, we finished a 15-tune set and began to sound like professionals. I guess in my case it was similar to riding a bike: even over time you never forget how to do it.

The next day, at the conference plenary session, John Ambroseo, president and CEO of Coherent, but in this situation speaking for himself in a speech titled “Challenges to Growth for the Photonics Industry,” commented that the laser industry was dominated by 10 companies that control 80% of the business. The remaining companies, he posited, divide the balance of a niche-oriented market; a situation, he opined, that did not make much sense. Not that he was opposed to small, technological companies, but just that achieving compound annual growth rates greater than 10% was difficult unless these companies had economies of scale. Ambroseo was forthright in acknowledging the need for small, technology-driven, and passionate companies that bottom-fish (my term) the markets.

As he spoke (eloquently, I thought) on the subject I couldn’t help but equate the Beer’s Law musical group to the small laser companies that march to the beat of a different drummer. They have no desire to be $500 million public corporations. In fact, short of the certainty that even though these companies want to be a success, technically and financially, they are, in many instances, driven by a sense of achievement rather than the bottom line. This comes in part, I think, from not having stockholders to satisfy.

And with due respect to Mr. Ambroseo, with whom I agreed on most of the substance of his presentation, I thought “hurrah” for the little guys who have the chutzpah to think they can compete head-to-head with the big guys. From them come many of the technology innovations that will take this industry to its next level.

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