Jack Jewell, Founder of Picolight, Inc.

Jack Jewell sparked widespread industrial development of the Vertical Cavity Surface Emitting Laser (VCSEL), by demonstrating over 1 million VCSELs on a single chip at Bell Laboratories in 1989. Building on this achievement, in 1991 Jack co-founded Vixel Corp, the first company committed to VCSEL commercialization. In 1995 Jack left Vixel to start Picolight, Inc., and quickly established them as a leader in the commercialization of VCSELs and VCSEL-based transceivers for the data communications industry. With its world-leading VCSEL operation, Picolight was acquired by JDSU in 2007. Today VCSELs are used by billions of people each day in data communications and computer mouse applications.

Jack received his Ph.D. in optical sciences from the University of Arizona in 1984. He presently holds 68 U.S. patents, and has over 250 publications to his name. He is currently enjoying entrepreneurial activities, consulting, and running ultra-marathons.

Here is an excerpt from my interview with Jack:

Did you transition into industry right after school?

Yes, I went to work at Bell Labs right after school, but it was very similar to an academic environment. You were expected to gave talks on your work and publish a lot of papers, but you didn’t have to raise money. I actually continued working on the same topic as my Ph.D. thesis.

Bell Labs was a tough place to work. Some of your strongest competitors were inside the company. That helped us all keep more active, of course. When I look back at it now, though, after my experience in start up companies, my time at Bell Labs seems like an extended childhood, because we didn’t have to generate monetary support for our work.

How did you transition from Bell Labs to starting your own company?

I spent my time at Bell Labs improving my optical bi-stable devices, and I was always interested in starting a company based on this work. After a few years, though, optical computing wasn’t looking very promising as an application area. The devices that I made had a structure that was very similar to a laser, so I made a few changes and turned them into vertical cavity lasers. That led to a big breakthrough in VCSEL technology, and was a real turning point in my career.

Following that success I figured I would probably never have a better opportunity to start a company. I had been talking to other people about this, and we all agreed that this was something to go for. Because of Bell Labs’ emphasis on publishing and presenting at conferences, my work was very well known, so it was relatively easy to get SBIR and other funding for the company. Two years after the breakthrough I left Bell Labs and did consulting work to keep the money flowing until our contracts kicked in. We started off as Photonics Research, Inc. and later renamed the company Vixel Corporation.

Are there skills you developed as a scientist that you found useful for starting your own company?

Absolutely.  There are a lot of skills that transferred over.  The writing skills I developed writing technical papers made it easier to write proposals. I had also filed some patents at Bell Labs, so I had experience working with the patent attorneys and understood that process well. Giving presentations is also a great skill to have because you have to give presentations to venture capitalist to sell your company. I was used to getting up in front of people and trying to convince them that what I was doing was the greatest thing on earth, and would make everyone’s life better.

Obviously I had to start looking at marketing and the economic side of the business as well. That was new, but not all that hard. When we were applying for SBIR’s it was much like what a professor would do when applying for grants and contracts.

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