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Lighting the Way from UCF Labs to International Markets

If you work with lasers anywhere in the world, you are familiar with OptiGrate Corp., a Central Florida company drastically improving the way light-based machines operate.

The company manufactures a component – a bit of glass – that makes lasers more precise and proficient. The growing business helps create high-tech employment positions, which strengthens the region’s economy. In three years, it doubled in size to more than 30 employees – including eight with PhDs and 10 with master’s degrees. Today, it has 400 customers across six continents.

Thanks to OptiGrate and its partnership with the University of Central Florida, the region has become a hub for laser technology.

“We are pretty much unmatched in the world,” said 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 Does OptiGrate Do?

At this point, resign yourself to this fact: Unless you have a profound knowledge of physics, you will not understand what the company produces. Nevertheless, OptiGrate’s glass bits, known as volume Bragg gratings, permit lasers to be of precise frequencies and properties to perform eye surgery; cut and weld automobile parts; and, sniff out explosives in airports. These components improve laser performance, aid laser miniaturization, and reduce laser costs used for medicine, pharmacology, and defense. The uses for these products are expanding.

OptiGrate is one of a dozen companies created by technological discoveries at the UCF and fostered to profitability in its business incubators. Approximately 130 businesses have been established, creating hundreds of jobs and pumping millions into Central Florida’s economy.

“It is a disruptive technology,” explained M.J. Soileau, vice president for research and a professor of optics at UCF. “The technology offers the foundation for a new line of laser products. It gives people the ability to create innovative products. This technology is the first out of the block.”

Strategic Partnerships

Soileau came to UCF in 1987 to direct the Center for Research in Electro Optics and Lasers (CREOL). His research history and contacts led Soileau to Leonid Glebov, a Russian scientist who accomplished cutting-edge work within 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 collapsed in 1991, Glebov moved to the United Sates and worked at Ford Motor Company. When Glebov decided to re-enter the academic field, Soileau capitalized on an opportunity to bring Glebov to UCF where he found support for his scientific work. By 1999, he had developed 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.

In 2008, Glebov’s son, Alexei, was recruited from his job in Silicon Valley to run the company. The senior Glebov has remained on UCF’s faculty, regularly drawing more than $1 million a year in research grants to the institution.

“There is nobody else that does Glebov’s work,” Soileau said. “I do not 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 produce a filter for light. This glass filter forms a laser of a pure frequency or color.

Silica, with a mixture of additives molded 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 and his colleague, Vadim Smirnov, started 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 utilized its highly developed business incubator system to help Glebov build a viable company. The UCF incubator program helps scientists handle business aspects such as finding real estate, setting up an office, and maintaining utilities – simple skills often overlooked by physicists.

“We gave it a lot of care and feeding,” explained Soileau. “Companies often come around to help fund research.”

OptiGrate has assisted UCF by raising research funds and building awareness of laser-based companies that might need its products.

Next Generation

The younger Glebov earned his master’s degree in St. Petersburg, Russia. In 1992, he left Russia for Germany to earn a PhD 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,” Glebov said. “The company needed leadership with an industrial background. That is why dad brought me here. I have seen the industry from the other side. I am the business guy.”

When the U.S. economy struggled, OptiGrate flourished. It grew 30 percent per year and doubled its workspace by moving into a new building.

“We are expanding in different markets,” Glebov said. “We are 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. “No one else in the world can do such work. We are working on finding new markets and new applications. We are still at the beginning. It can easily grow ten times in the next few years. My expectations are very optimistic.”