Why we need to support the dreamers

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Rob Randelman, president and CEO, Ocean Optics

How fortunate we are! We're involved in a dynamic industry in which technical breakthroughs are commonplace and many of us have the pleasure of working on projects or with customers that truly are changing the world. But to me, as amazing as that is, I’m worried that the unique heritage of our industry is fading away.

Arnold Beckman, Richard Perkin, Charles Elmer, George Hatsopoulos, Jan Melles, Mike Morris and many more like them shaped our industry over the years, but I’m sure that all – at one time or another – were dismissed as dreamers, crackpots or worse. It’s easy today to say they had ‘vision’, but many of these shapers fought uphill battles to reach success and acceptance. They saw what others couldn’t – and that has made all the difference.

Our industry is very competitive, with a seemingly never-ending focus on quarterly profits, ever-increasing growth, and reporting short-term gains. While being successful and running a company well is required to endure, what gets lost at times is that lasting success in our business comes from innovation, from risk and from dreams – things that don’t always translate well, at least in the short term, to the bottom line. In my view, we need to sometimes act on a bit of faith and simply support the innovators and the dreamers.

Our company, like many of our industry colleagues, supports academic research with gifts in kind, cash awards, and internships. We have programs to support incubator research and small companies involved with Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants.

SBIRs are something near and dear to our hearts since our company was founded 15 years ago with a $500,000 SBIR grant. We also help develop the next generation of scientists and engineers by supporting educational and instructional programmes. Is this good business? Sure. Our hope is that the success of these dreamers will inspire them to think of us and buy our products in the future.

We gain keen insight in the ‘new’ and the daring by working with these clever people, which helps us be ever so more ready with competitive solutions for the experimenters and early adopters. Does this expand the knowledge and reach of the overall photonics market – we hope so, since we believe that through supporting this quest for innovation, these dreams, our industry grows stronger and more resilient. This brings more talented people to our industry and only makes the pace of innovation and dazzling developments even faster.

Does this support of innovation create competition? Sometimes, but more often it forges what I call ‘coop-etition’ – i.e. cooperative relationships where competitors do business with each other in the interest of overall success – and in so doing, create a larger market rather than scrabbling for incremental crumbs of the existing one.

Can you imagine if all of our industry leading colleagues joined together to set aside just five per cent of their business to support the innovation and dreams of others? As we walk the tradeshow aisles, how many of the small booths tucked in the corner by the fire exits in a few years could grow to be successful and shape the future of our industry? And, in so doing, hire scientists, engineers, and sales people and thereby strengthen their communities? We know that this support and encouragement works because not so long ago we had our own little booth, in the corner, by the fire exit (OK – it wasn’t the fire exit, it was actually the toilets!).

Fortunately for Ocean Optics, some key individuals encouraged us and we grew to what we are today. Sure, there are angel investors, pre-IPO financing, boot-strapping and good old-fashioned ‘passing the hat’ among friends and family. However, is the focus of all that really on developing science and innovation or are the ‘investors’ more focused on earning a sizable return on their bets? Can they advise and encourage the dreamers from the perspective of knowing the industry and experiencing a similar path? Probably not.

Where could the ‘next big thing’ be? Yes, new products and ideas are a focus of ours and of many companies, but I’d bet that the truly ground-breaking innovation will come from a small company, a super-smart graduate student, or a hard-working small research team. They need our support and encouragement. We call on all the leaders in our industry to join us in supporting the dreamers and innovators.

Encourage them with guidance, financial assistance, and perspective that can only come from being an industry leader. The long-term vitality of our industry depends on it. It’s simply good business and the long-term rewards could be priceless.