Developing A Unique Laser Technology
Source: Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report (GLITR)
Arbor Photonics represents a textbook case of a company spun out of a university – a company poised for success. It began as the brainchild of Professor Almantas Galvanauskas in a lab at the University of Michigan’s Center for Ultrafast Optical Science. Dr. Galvanauskas and his team invented the core fiber laser technology designed to improve the performance of high-powered lasers. As Dr. Galvanauskas began exploring ways to commercialize this new technology, he captured the interest of a local venture capital firm. In 2007, the VC, RPM Ventures, engaged Phil Amaya, a twenty-five year veteran of the laser industry, to assist with its due diligence prior to investing in the technology.
“I had been part of a Silicon Valley start up that had just been sold when RPM asked for my evaluation of the technology and, at the time, was looking for a new opportunity,” relates Amaya, now CEO of Arbor Photonics. “Frankly, I didn’t think there was any need for another fiber laser company but as I got to know the founding team and its concept, I saw that this proprietary technology clearly met a market need.” Amaya was sufficiently convinced of its prospects for success that he agreed to a long-distance commute between his home in California and starting a business in Ann Arbor.
In 2008, the company obtained exclusive license for Chirally-Coupled Core optical fiber, also called 3C fiber, giving them the rights to commercialize a fiber optic cable that not only delivers more power more efficiently than other laser technologies but provides a more tightly focused laser beam. “This technology allows Arbor Photonics to produce high-power fiber lasers with two to five times more power and processing speed than competing alternatives, says Amaya. “Our products will increase productivity and enable new capabilities in the growing $2 billion industrial laser market.”
Arbor Photonics customers, manufacturers of lasers and laser subsystems, have liked what they have seen. “To date, all of our customers have purchased the initial prototype we developed for them with the intent of incorporating it into their own application,” states Amaya. “2011 is a critical year for developing customer traction. We are shipping working models to customers for technical evaluation to establish that our technology does what we say it can do. Then we can move to production.”
Despite being tough economic times in which to launch a business, the Arbor Photonics team managed to raise the funding necessary for its research. While the venture capital firm, RPM, became an initial investor, the company needed to raise additional funds. “I submitted our business plan to the state’s 21st Century Jobs Fund and received the right amount of funding at the right time; it really made the difference in moving the company forward,” acknowledges Amaya. “We were then able to tap into funding sources ranging from Ann Arbor Spark and the National Science Foundation (NSF), to the U.S. military.” It appears likely that a significant phase two NSF grant will be awarded to Arbor Photonics later in 2011. A second VC investment round is also planned for this year to fund growth and ramp up manufacturing.
It was Ann Arbor SPARK that connected Arbor Photonics to the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development C. Late last year, the company entered the first annual Accelerate Michigan Innovation contest, promoted as the world’s largest business plan competition. Besting hundreds of other companies, Arbor Photonics finished as the first runner-up winning $150,000. “I have no doubt that it was the coaching assistance we received for our presentation to the Accelerate Michigan committee from Tom Kelly, the SBTDC tech counselor, that gave us our edge,” acknowledges Amaya. “This award will help open doors to further VC rounds.” Amaya also sees the SBTDC as helping the company make the connections necessary for other business opportunities. “It’s great being able to tap into a network that can identify a variety of resources that will benefit our future growth,” states Amaya.
Arbor Photonics currently employs 8 full-time employees and engages several consultants when necessary. “We have been lucky to find experienced people with five to 25 years of related fiber laser technology experience; five of whom have PhDs,” says Amaya. “We have great people who understand and are excited about technology innovation and are also experienced on the business side of the operation.”
Amaya is excited about Arbor Photonics prospects as a manufacturing hardware company. Within the next five years, he expects the company to complete its transition from prototype development to manufacturing and assembly. “I would like Arbor Photonics to become part of the entrepreneurial folklore of the Ann Arbor area,” says Amaya. “For an entrepreneurial culture to evolve, there needs to be success stories and it’s these stories that inspire others to step out and take a chance. We would like to be a part of that legacy.”
For more information, visit www.arborphotonics.com.