Lighting the Way
If you work with lasers anywhere in the world, especially Taipei and Munich, you are familiar with OptiGrate Corp., a Central Florida company that has radically improved the way some light-based machines operate.
The young Orlando company manufactures a component it’s essentially a bit of glass, but their invention makes lasers more precise and efficient. The growing business has doubled in size to more than 30 employees – including eight with PhDs and 10 with master’s degrees – in the past three years, and today has 400 customers across six continents. Additionally, it creates the kind of high-tech positions that strengthen the region’s economy.
Thanks to OptiGrate and its partnership with the University of Central Florida, Orlando has become known as one of the centers of laser technology. “We are pretty much unmatched in the world,” said 44-year-old Alexei Glebov, OptiGrate president and CEO and the son of the company’s founder. “We can make holographic optical elements much better than anybody else.”
What Exactly Does OptiGrate Do?
At this point, resign yourself to a cruel fact: Unless you have a deep understanding of physics, you won’t understand exactly what the company builds. Nevertheless, their glass bits, called volume Bragg gratings, allow lasers to be of precise frequencies and properties so they can perform eye surgery, cut and weld automobile parts and sniff out explosives in airports. OptiGrate’s components improve laser performance, help miniaturize them and reduce the cost of lasers used for medicine, pharmacology and defense. And the uses for their products are expanding.
OptiGrate is one of dozens of companies created by technological discoveries at UCF and nurtured to profitability in its business incubators. Some 130 businesses have been established, creating hundreds of jobs and pumping millions into the Central Florida economy. “It’s a disruptive technology,” explained M.J. Soileau, UCF’s vice president for research and a professor of optics. The technology basically provides the foundation for a new line of laser products. “It’s going to give people the ability to make things you didn’t know you could make,” continued Soileau, who earned a PhD in quantum electronics from the University of Southern California. “They’re first out of the block.”
Soileau came to UCF in 1987 to direct the Center for Research in Electro Optics and Lasers (CREOL). His research history and contacts led him to Leonid (Leon) Glebov, a Russian scientist who did groundbreaking work in the field in the 1970s. Soileau and Glebov met in St. Petersburg, Russia, forming a fast friendship based on their similar scientific interests.
When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Glebov came to the U.S. and worked at Ford Motor Co. But when Glebov decided to re-enter the academic field, Soileau capitalized on an opportunity to bring Glebov to UCF in 1995, winning a competition against the prestigious Stanford University.
At UCF, Glebov found support for his scientific work and by 1999 he had created the technology and founded the company that became OptiGrate. The university benefited from the partnership, both financially and by enhancing its reputation as a research institution.
Glebov’s 44-year-old son, also an outstanding physicist, was recruited from his job in Silicon Valley to run the company in 2008. The senior Glebov has remained on the UCF faculty, regularly drawing more than a million dollars a year in research grants to the institution. “There’s nobody else that does Leon Glebov’s work,” according to Soleau. “I don’t think Leon has a lot of peers.”
How It Works…Optical Physics for Dummies
The heart of the technology is a method to produce a piece of glass in which the molecules are aligned to create a filter for light. Known as a “volume Bragg grating,” this glass filter creates a laser of a pure frequency or color.
Silica, with a mixture of additives formed in a special process, creates an image in the glass like a hologram, which filters the laser light. “This opens lots of new applications,” Soileau explained. The result is better optical filters, better beam directors and better lasers.
The foundation for the technology was developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and Leon Glebov, his wife Larissa Glebova, and his colleague Vadim Smirnov founded the Florida company to commercialize the technology. With projects from NASA and the military funding much of the initial research, Glebov was the first to commercialize this process and its products.
“It’s a new of way of producing things that have those characteristics,” Soileau said, whose guidance has been instrumental in developing UCF’s optics program. “The UCF optic program is one of the top three in the country,” Soileau stated.
When OptiGrate’s technology was ready for market, UCF used its highly developed business incubator system to help Glebov create a viable company. “When we spun off OptiGrate, we put it in our incubator,” Soileau said. The UCF incubator program helps scientists handle business aspects, such as real estate, setting up an office and maintaining the utilities – simple skills that physicists often overlook.
“We gave it a lot of care and feeding,” explained Soileau. The company has helped the university by raising both research funds and the awareness of laser-based companies that might need OptiGrate’s products. Adding, “Companies often come around to help fund research.”
Alexei Glebov barely remembers a time when his father wasn’t friends with Soileau. The younger Glebov earned his master’s degree in St. Petersburg, Russia. He left Russia in 1992 and earned his PhD in Germany in solid physics and applied physics. He began an industrial career with Lucent Technologies in New Jersey and worked 18 years in California. “I am a Silicon Valley boy,” Alexei said.
In 2008, he was called in to run the company. “Photonics is still pretty small,” he said. “The company needed leadership with an industrial background. That’s why dad brought me here. I’ve seen the industry from the other side. I am the business guy.”
While the U.S. economy has struggled during the past five years, OptiGrate has thrived, growing 30 percent per year and doubling its workspace last summer by moving into a new building. “We’re expanding in different markets,” Glebov said. “We’re increasing profits year after year.” Though, since the company is private, he declined to reveal sales figures.
His father’s title with the company now is vice president of research and development, but the senior scientist splits his time between OptiGrate and UCF, where he teaches and does research. “He brought this technology and pushed the limits of this technology and made it fit the requirement for commercialization,” the younger Glebov said. “Basically, so no one else in the world can do such work.”
Laser technology is certain to become more valuable to the U.S. economy, and OptiGrate expects to be part of that growth. Laser range finders, one of the developing technologies, will be a major component of cars that drive themselves.
“We’re working on finding new markets and new applications,” the younger Glebov said. “We are still at the very beginning. It can easily grow 10 times in the next few years. My expectations are very optimistic.”