When he hit middle age, Valentin Gapontsev decided to take a chance as an entrepreneur, starting a company from scratch in Fryazino, Russia, that sought to transform the laser industry.
Eighteen years later, that company — IPG Photonics Corp., now based in Oxford — dominates the fast-growing category of industrial lasers, used in everything from shipbuilding to cosmetic surgery.
When he started, few thought he could reach his goal of creating powerful lasers to supplant conventional tools. "Great scientists said, 'You are crazy; it is not possible,' " says Gapontsev, 69. "Now everybody thinks it is so simple, so easy; in the beginning nobody was even thinking in that direction."
Company executives hope that the powerful, easy-to-use fiber lasers will do for the laser industry what microprocessors did to transform computing — and they have aggressively expanded business into new areas.
Before the telecommunications bust in 2000, about 86 percent of the company's business came from the telecom sector. But the company began making lasers that are used in manufacturing, cutting, and welding in factories and shipyards. Today, communications accounts for 7 percent of revenue.
Tom Hausken, a director at Strategies Unlimited, said the fiber laser industry is projected to grow faster than the overall laser industry - in part because IPG has been so successful.
Fiber lasers made up 11 percent of the laser market in 2007. By 2011, Hauksen projects, it will be 18.5 percent of the $3.4 billion industrial laser market.
"The idea for this stuff was around for decades, but it took a lot of things to come together. Some is technology, some is luck, but somebody like IPG has to push" the technology, Hausken says. "Now, its time has come."
Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.