‘Whatever your age, if you want to set up a company, just go for it’

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Carlos Lee, EPIC’s director general, talks to Heikki Timonen, director of GEHT International, a channel partner for high-power semiconductor lasers, optical fibres, fibre laser components and lidar systems






What’s the background to you creating GEHT International?

After studying physics and economics at the University of Eastern Finland, which included studies at Caen-Normandy University and the University of Tokyo, I started working as project manager for GE Healthcare in Finland. This was followed by two years as sales and marketing manager for the RTS Group, and in 2003 I moved to Santa Clara in the US, where I worked as product line manager for Coherent, who at that time were making unmounted chips for diode lasers.

In 2004, I moved back to Finland to work as product manager for VTI Technologies, maker of MEMS sensors for automotive and industrial applications. Then, in 2010, I moved to nLight Photonics, a manufacturer of optical fibres and laser diodes, to take up the position of global sales director, responsible for fibre sales in Europe and Asia.

By 2014, I decided to use my accumulated knowledge of the laser technology market and the contacts I had with customers and suppliers in Asia and Europe to set up my own company – GEHT International.

My wife had worked in China for several years and had a network in Hong Kong. Because most of our suppliers were Chinese, it made sense to incorporate the company in Hong Kong, although European sales would be run from Finland.


How has the company developed?

The original idea was to act as a sales agent for Chinese manufacturers of laser technologies, like semiconductor lasers, optical fibres and fibre components, selling their products to customers in Europe. The advantage of being an agent rather than a distributor is that, as an agent, products are shipped directly from the factory to the customers without the added cost and time involved in the use of an intermediate warehouse.

I concentrated on Chinese suppliers because they have a wide portfolio of products, but don’t tend to have agents or distributors in Europe or the US. We currently represent seven Chinese suppliers: Han’s TCS (semiconductor lasers); Shenzhen EAI (lidar sensors); Raysung Photonics (Fiber Bragg Gratings); LightComm (fiber optics components); Optizone (optical passive components); and Amonics (optical amplifiers and light sources). We also represent CorActive High-Tech (Canada) for specialty optical fibres and MESSTEC Power Converter (Germany) for drivers for diode lasers and TEC controllers.

From the very beginning I recognised that agents and distributors don’t add much value to what they are selling, especially in the case of standard products. Basically, all they do is give a price and lead time and that’s it. In fact, nowadays, customers can self-learn and get all the product information they need online. As a solution, in 2017, we launched GEHT Marketplace – a B2B e-commerce platform to connect buyers and sellers of photonics products. The sales process takes place start-to-finish online and the idea is to lower the cost of buying and selling and allow customers to self-learn and reach the same level of service as provided by a salesperson. Also, companies are creating today sustainability initiatives as awareness of climate change is increasing globally. Recycling and re-use of usable products are becoming increasingly important for responsible companies, and this is one of the original reasons why we created a global online platform where you can also offer, sell and buy used photonics products along with new ones. 


What have been the highs and lows to date?

Although I had a lot of contacts with customers I met while working for nLight and Coherent, the problem with customers who regularly buy fibre and laser diodes is that, once they have set up a product line, they don’t switch a diode or fibre just like that, even if it’s cheaper or a little bit better. So, the challenge has been to create new business with these customers. As a result, we’ve targeted customers who are working on their first prototypes and in this connection, we have good links with universities and research institutes.

As regards the highs, for anyone working in sales it’s getting orders – after all, that’s why we are in business. What’s also rewarding is starting to supply a start-up with components and see them develop a successful product that meets their customer’s requirements. They start to sell the product and then come back to us for more components and it’s rewarding to know that we’ve helped them to make something that the market really values.

Another thing I’m proud of is we’ve created a new sales model for photonics products. Most other distributor websites are not shops – they’re usually just product catalogues, and when you try to buy something, you just get a quote or sales email address. But with GEHT Marketplace, if you are a company selling lasers, for example, you can create your own shop on the platform, showing prices, images, product descriptions, and the buyer can place their order directly from the platform – anywhere, anytime.


What’s your advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs?

Whatever your age, if you want to set up a company, just go for it. When you are young, the main problem is a lack of customer network and expertise. Establishing relationships with suppliers and customers is absolutely crucial, but it takes a lot of time and is very expensive.  In my case, I started with a strong customer base that I had developed while traveling around the world working for my previous employers. While customers dive deep into their development issues, my background as a laser physicist has certainly been my most important asset in developing GEHT International.

If you are older and already know the right customers, I’d definitely recommend taking the plunge and going out on your own. It’s a totally different world but I really love what I’m doing, and I have no regrets. If things don’t work out, you can always work for somebody else.