A Laser Focus: Three Questions With nLight CEO Scott Keeney

If anyone can ever build a real lightsaber like the ones from “Star Wars,” it will be Scott Keeney. The co-founder and CEO of Vancouver, WA-based nLight has expertise in high-powered semiconductor lasers, and he has shown some serious business chops by leading his company from early uncertainty to profitability in the past few years.

Based on this momentum, nLight raised $10.7 million last month in a new round of venture financing from existing investors Oak Investment Partners, Mohr Davidow Ventures, and Menlo Ventures. Getting the funding, which is being used to expand product development and sales, is impressive enough. But what’s really interesting is how a company involved with semiconductors and fabrication has managed to thrive in the current climate.

It all starts with the man at the top. A little-known fact about Keeney is that around 1997, he helped Seattle investor Nick Hanauer and others write the business plan for the online advertising company that became aQuantive (which was bought by Microsoft for $6.4 billion in 2007). Keeney had also worked for the Hanauers’ pillow and bedding company, Seattle-based Pacific Coast Feather, after graduating from the University of Washington. He learned a valuable lesson there. “High-tech entrepreneurs have a tendency to disparage low-tech, but for younger managers, you can learn a lot more in low-tech,” Keeney says. “Because the only way you win in low-tech is by out-executing your competition.”

Keeney started nLight in Seattle in 2000, initially with a focus on telecommunications. When that industry went through its downturn in 2001, nLight had to adjust (a bit like another Seattle company we profiled this week, Impinj). The laser company quickly expanded to customers in other markets like defense, medical, and industrial material processing. Today, nLight makes powerful lasers and fiber optics bought by original equipment manufacturers, and used for everything from welding plastic and cutting auto parts to military optics and surgical tools.

The company’s key advantage is its production method: it uses nanometer-sized particles that take care of both the waveguiding (light transmission) and active-ion (amplification) aspects of building a laser. The result is a cheaper, more energy-efficient, and brighter laser than what can be built using the conventional technique, which is called solution doping.

In 2002, nLight moved to Vancouver, WA, to be closer to manufacturing facilities. The company has an assembly plant in Hillsboro, OR, as well as offices in Germany, Finland, and China. It has more than 300 employees worldwide, about 200 in the U.S., and it first turned profitable in … Next Page »

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