Barry Zhang is a survivor in a tough industry, fiber optics. Though the industry was suffering from the vicissitudes of the telecommunications downturn, he founded and sold one company, worked for that firm, and helped grow another firm. Now he is well on his way to making a success of the fourth firm, PrinceTel Inc.
After five years in 2,000 square feet on Princess Road in Lawrenceville, PrinceTel moved to 7,000 square feet on Reed Road in Pennington. Zhang has six employees and is hiring for two manufacturing jobs in the areas of fiberoptics and microscopes.
“We have witnessed a remarkable transformation of this technology sector,” says Zhang, who points to the pioneering research at Bell Labs, Sarnoff, and Princeton University that spawned growing companies such as Epitaxx, its successor, Sensors Unlimited, plus PD-LD, and Discovery Semiconductors.
“More and more people are forced to use fiber,” says Zhang. “A lot of the things they used to do with electrical wires are just not good any more. They need higher and higher speeds and sophisticated controls.”
Whereas fiberoptics companies used to sell mostly to the telecommunications industry, other markets have opened. “A lot of companies are gone, but new companies are coming up,” says Zhang. “Of all the companies I have worked with, PrinceTel is the most exciting, because of the technology and timing.”
PrinceTel manufactures fiber optic interconnection products, such as fiber optic rotary joints for geophysical operations in oil and gas companies and military. Anyone who is exploring the ocean depths, whether to find oil and gas or for military purposes, needs to use robots, equipped with sensors and/or cameras and attached to a cable with electrical power and fiber optics. Zhang’s firm makes the rotary joints, the “pivoting points” that allow the cable to pay in and pay out.
These cost from $1,000 to $10,000 and each job might need one or two joints. Mitsubishi is using one for its R&D work on a robot, and Sarnoff is another of Zhang’s clients. Princetel’s clients also include three branches of the United States military — the Navy, the Army and the Air Force — plus the government of India.
Don’t ask what he is doing for India, because he doesn’t know very much, other than that his product is used for a communications blimp. “All they tell me is what they need, they don’t tell me what they need it for.” He can say, however, what the domestic military wants. For instance, submarines that used to communicate with radio frequencies through electro magnetic waves going through cable are now converting to fiber optics.
Zhang has filed four patents. His competition consists of a German company, Schleifring, and an American one, Moog. But Zhang is confident of his competitive position.
Zhang picked up his fiber optics experience on the job, so to speak, after he earned his doctors’ degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University in 1994. He grew up in China, where his father was a district school superintendent and his mother was a high school principal. He learned English in high school, in the mid 1970s, by listening to the radio. “My accent is from the Voice of America,” he says.
After earning a master’s degree in physics from Tsinghua University in Beijing, he studied briefly at the University of Houston, where he met his future wife, Bonnie Liao, who is now a Merrill Lynch computational scientist, and they have two school-aged children. In Beijing, his brother is running the Chinese division of PrinceTel, which employs eight people.
Zhang founded his first company, Princeton Optics, in 1993; it developed lasers and other optics programs for Princeton University, various research firms, the National Institute for Health, and just about anyone that needed optics or lasers. Princeton Optics had space at 250 Phillips Boulevard, where Zhang would work for two more companies in the same space.
He sold Princeton Optics in 1998 to Audio Development Company (ADC), a Minnesota-based supplier of transmission and networking systems. Then he joined another fiber optic firm, Optellios, and recommended the space to the CEO, and Optellios moved there. But Optellios suffered in the market downturn and downsized to Langhorne in 2003, so Zhang went to work for a fourth firm, PrinceTel, as a consultant. Then he assumed some of the debt from the founder, Kainan Tang, bought the firm, and decided to move.
“We were so cramped at Princess Road, and we didn’t have high speed Internet available,” says Zhang, “I thought maybe I should drive back to my old neighborhood.” He discovered an empty Reed Road building, which used to house the P.E.A.C., an athletic club. In the club’s expansion to a nearby building, formerly owned by ETS, owner Michael Briehler had left the club’s mirrors behind. They add a luxurious element to what is now PrinceTel’s production room.
Zhang predicts he will need all this space next year. One of his clients has reserved all of PrinceTel’s current capacity. “Our production for 2007 will at least double,” he says.
PrinceTel Inc., 1595 Reed Road, Pennington 08534; 609-895-9890; fax, 609-895-9552. Barry Zhang, CEO. Home page: www.princetel.com
Cercis Inc., 25 Route 31 South, Suite C, PMB 2030, Pennington 08534; 609-737-5120; fax, 609-737-5122. Joseph Colosi, engineering manager. Home page: www.cercis.com
“Everyone knows fiber optics got hit in the dotbomb of 2001,” says Karen Kinsman, co-founder of Cercis Inc., “but Princeton has been a hub, because of Greg Olsen, Vladimir Ban, Sarnoff, and Bell Labs — all kinds of startups came out of them.
Cercis, one of the most recently established fiber optic firms, moved from the Straube Center to a building near Reed Road which it shares with another firm that the founders prefer not to identify. Partners Joseph Colosi and Kinsman release only a mailbox address.
Their test equipment products — optical power meters, laser/LCD/VCSEL light sources, fault finders, and customer OEM products — sell for from $300 to $3,000. Their clients are other fiber optic companies and installers, such as Verizon, that need to measure optical power.
Kinsman, who handles the marketing end, grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania and graduated from the University of North Carolina. She did marketing for a division of Corning in Hickory, North Carolina, and then worked for cable manufacturing companies in North Carolina and Massachusetts. Colosi went to Fairleigh Dickinson, Class of 1983, and has a master’s degree in physics from FDU.
The future business partners met at Greg Olsen’s first company, Epitaxx, which was sold to Nippon Sheet Glass (NSG), producing profits for all the employees. They also worked for Vladimir Ban at PD-LD and for Laser Diode (now owned by Tyco) in Edison.
Kinsman came up with the company’s name, Cercis, which is really the botanical name for a tree, with a heart-shaped leaf and pinkish-red flowers, which grows wild along highways in Virginia. How did she find that name? “My father was a nurseryman,” says Kinsman. “And all the good fiberoptics names were taken.”
PD/LD Inc. (Photo Diode-Laser Diode), 30-B Pennington-Hopewell Road, Pennington 08534; 609-564-7900; fax, 609-564-7901. Vladimir Ban, president. Home page: www.pd-ld.com
PD/LD started out working in the telecommunications, sensor, and medical industries, but it has expanded its focus to include applications for homeland security. “We had a certain retrenchment in 2000, but we are growing at the rate of 20 percent a year, and 40 percent of our production is exported,” says Vladimir Ban, who founded the firm in 1993. A Croatian emigre, he had helped found Epitaxx, the successful fiber optics firm that was sold to a Japanese concern in 1990.
Currently Ban has 40 workers in 15,000 square feet at the former Kooltronics site in Pennington. His products include fiber-coupled coaxial lasers and laser-emitting diodes, high power pulsed lasers, coarse wavelength-division multiplexing modules, and combiners for the optical communications, and Raman spectroscopy.
The latter technology, Raman spectroscopy is “very original and very new,” says Ban. It has won some important industry awards and will be the basis for the company’s next growth spurt.
Discovery Semiconductors Inc., 110 Silvia Street, Ewing 08628; 609-434-1311; fax, 609-434-1317. Abhay Joshi, owner & CEO. Home page: www.chipsat.com
Abhay Joshi founded his firm in 1993 to design semiconductor chips and make optical photoreceivers for telecommunications.
Joshi’s firm produces monolithic opto-electronic integrated circuits, costing from several hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, for the microwave and fiberoptic components of the telecommunications industry, as well as for the defense and space industries.
Discovery’s photodiodes and photoreceivers can be used at multiple wavelengths, which reduces operational and inventory costs for its clients. It has expanded the product line to add small benchtop instrumentation to current models.
Among its clients are UCLA and the National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan, which are collaborating on ultra-fast lasers; they use Discovery’s high speed photodiodes to characterize and analyze high speed signals.
JDS Uniphase (JDSU), 200 Ludlow Drive, Ewingville Business Park, Ewing 08638; 609-620-7000; fax, 609-538-8122. Jeffrey Perkins. Home page: www.jdsu.com
JDS Uniphase lost power during the telecommunications downturn, but part of it is still in Ewingville Business Park. The surviving part traces its lineage all the way back to Greg Olsen’s company, Epitaxx.
Olsen started out at the David Sarnoff Research Laboratory, and in 1982 he left to found EPITAXX to make optoelectronic devices. Olsen’s employees made a nice profit when he sold the company in 1990 for $12 million to Nippon Sheet Glass, which sold it in turn to JDS Uniphase.
At one point JDS Uniphase had more than 1,200 workers in New Jersey, including automated clean rooms in 100,000 square feet on Ludlow Drive.
The remnants of the old Epitaxx were merged into a California-based branch, SDL. Whereas Epitaxx made detectors, SDL made lasers. JDSU sold off some of its businesses, including its cable TV business and some of its optics facilities. But JDSU kept this 30-person Ludlow Drive facility as a supply station for high speed optoelectronic transmission components and optical amplifiers.
Last year JDSU bought a Maryland-based global firm, Acterna, one of the top three companies worldwide for communications test and measurement products. Currently JDSU gets 40 percent of its $1 billion revenue from these products. It has 7,000 workers worldwide, is a leader in three multi-billion dollar global markets, and has a presence in 164 countries.
Sensors Unlimited, Goodrich Corp. (GR), 3490 Route 1, Building 12, Princeton 08540; 609-520-0610; fax, 609-520-1663. Marshall Cohen, vice president. Home page: www.oss.goodrich.com
After Greg Olsen sold Epitaxx in 1990, he turned around and founded Sensors Unlimited in 1991. Now it has 55 people in Research Park, and, like Epitaxx, was sold — to Goodrich Corporation.
The sale made a good amount of money for the employees who were working there at the time. Currently the company has 55 employees.
Sensors’ technology — machine vision for process control — is useful for medical and pharmaceutical firms as well as for defense and homeland security and steel and bottle manufacturing.
“This area, the Route 1 corridor, is still a center for optoelectronics,” says Marshall Cohen, vice president. But Route 128 in Boston — spinoffs from Lincoln Labs — is also a center, as is Silicon Valley and even Southern California.
“Our technology is used in a whole variety of markets which have all expanded. But telecom, though it is growing, is considerably lower than at its peak.”