By Sebastian Northside
If you work with lasers anywhere in the world, especially Taipei andMunich, you are familiar with OptiGrate Corp., a Central Florida company radically improving the way some light-based machines operate.
The company manufactures a component, essentially a bit of glass, but the invention makes lasers more precise and efficient. The growing business creates high tech positions, which strengthens the region’s economy. It has doubled in size to more than 30 employees – including eight with PhDs and 10 with master’s degrees – in the past three years. Today, it has 400 customers across six continents.
Thanks to OptiGrate and its partnership with the University of Central Florida, Orlando has become a center for laser technology. “We are pretty much unmatched in the world,” said 44-year-old Alexei Glebov, OptiGrate president and CEO, and 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 to perform eye surgery; cut and weld automobile parts; and, sniff out explosives in airports. OptiGrate’s components improve laser performance, help laser miniaturization, and reduce laser costs used for medicine, pharmacology and defense. 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 Central Florida’s economy. “It’s a disruptive technology,” explained M.J. Soileau, vice president for research and a professor of optics at UCF. The technology provides the foundation for a new line of laser products. “It gives 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 Glebov, a Russian scientist who performed groundbreaking work in the field in the 1970s. Soileau and Glebov met in St. Petersburg, Russia and formed a fast friendship based on their scientific interests.
When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Glebov came to the U.S. and worked at Ford Motor Co. When Glebov decided to re-enter the academic field, Soileau capitalized on an opportunity bringing him to UCF in 1995 where Glebov found support for his scientific work. By 1999, he had created the technology and founded the company that became OptiGrate. The university benefitted from the partnership financially and enhanced its reputation as a research institution. “The UCF optic program is one of the top three in the country,” Soileau stated.
Alexei Glebov, Glebov’s son and an outstanding physicist, was recruited from his job in Silicon Valley to run the company in 2008. The senior Glebov has remained on UCF’s faculty, regularly drawing more than $1M a year in research grants to the institution. “There’s nobody else that does Glebov’s work,” Soileau said. “I don’t think he 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 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. The result is better optical filters, beam directors, and lasers.
The foundation for the technology was developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Glebov, his wife Larissa, 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.
When OptiGrate’s technology was ready for market, UCF used its highly developed business incubator system to help Glebov create a viable company. The UCF incubator program helps scientists handle business aspects, such as real estate, office set-up and utilities maintenance – simple skills physicists often overlook.
“We gave it a lot of care and feeding,” explained Soileau. “Companies often come around to help fund research.” The company has helped the university by raising research funds and awareness of laser-based companies that might need OptiGrate’s products.
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,” Glebov said.
In 2008, he was called in to run OptiGrate. “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. It has grown 30 percent per year and doubled its workspace by moving into a new building. “We’re expanding in different markets,” Glebov said. “We’re increasing profits year after year.”
His father’s title with OptiGrate is now vice president of research and development, but the senior scientist splits his time between the company and UCF, where he teaches and conducts research. “He brought this technology, pushed the limits, and made it fit the requirement for commercialization,” the younger Glebov said. “Basically, no one else in the world can do such work.”
“We’re working on finding new markets and new applications,” the younger Glebov said. “We are still at the beginning. It can easily grow 10 times in the next few years. My expectations are very optimistic.”