Corrections or additions?
These articles by David Salowitz and Barbara Fox were prepared for
August 23, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Greg Olsen Sells Sensors Unlimited
Gregory Olsen believes America is the land of
chances." Before he achieved success in the white hot field of
fiber optics, his future was almost derailed during his rebellious
teen-age years. Later, he rolled the dice again by launching not one,
but two high tech companies.
"I probably couldn’t have happened in Europe because my fate would
have been sealed at age 15," Olsen says. In this country, "if
you screw up in high school you have that chance to bounce back."
Last week Olsen sold his second company, Sensors Unlimited, for more
than $600 million. His remarkable rise from working class roots to
the entrepreneurial aerie will be detailed when he speaks on "A
Tale of Two Start-ups" at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce’s
expo luncheon on Thursday, August 31, at 11:30 a.m. at the Doral
Cost: $28. Call 609-520-1776.
"I have a variant of the talk: it’s called the good, the bad and
the ugly," Olsen says, with a chuckle. "It’s about all the
trials and tribulations of starting up."
Olsen’s previous start-up was Epitaxx, a fiber optics company sold
to Nippon Sheet Glass for $12 million in 1990. Nippon sold the company
last year, for $400 million, to JDS Uniphase, a telecommunications
The Internet boom is propelling Olsen’s current company, located at
Princeton Service Center on Route 1 North. Sensors Unlimited’s
have doubled each of the past three years, with the "highly
business expected to do between $25 and $30 million this year, he
A manufacturing and research company, Sensors Unlimited has such
as photodetector chips used to help send and receive messages in fiber
optic networks and high-performance cameras that capture images of
infrared laser beams.
The surge in revenues began in 1997 when telecommunication businesses
realized that they could use Sensors Unlimited’s photo detector chips
to monitor the Internet, which is made up of fiber optic light signals
that must be maintained at the right wavelength and power level. The
technique was developed by Olsen, Marshall Cohen (Sensors’ vice
and Stephen Forrest, a Princeton University electrical engineering
professor who also helped develop technology for Universal Display
Corporation on Phillips Boulevard.
"It was slow, steady growth but when the Internet came along then
things really took off," says Olsen. "I think what we’re
getting known for is as a company that speeds up the Internet."
Olsen’s personal journey had a few detours. "If
you’ve seen the movie "Grease," that’s kind of how I grew up.
I was probably one of the ne’er-do-wells in high school. I barely
got out of school and I had to take summer classes to get into
Luckily, academically I bloomed in college."
Born in 1945 in Brooklyn, he was raised in a blue collar family. The
Olsens moved to the tiny town of Rowland in the Pocono Mountains
finally settling in Ridgefield Park in Bergen County when he was 10.
His father was an electrician and his mother a school teacher. Thanks
to her, when Olsen started kindergarten he could read, write, and
do basic arithmetic. He later skipped fourth grade. His parents did
not encourage him to pursue any particular vocation.
"I’m a kid of the ’50s and in those days the parents put you out
in the street and you made your own fun and your own way in life.
I sort of wanted to pattern myself after my father and that probably
got me into technical areas. I went from wanting to be an electrician
to wanting to be a TV repairman. After the Soviet satellite Sputnik
came out, I wanted to be an electrical engineer, and then a physicist,
and somehow I wound up in semiconductor electronics."
Olsen put himself through Fairleigh Dickinson, where he studied
engineering, with summer jobs provided by his father’s electrical
union, Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
in New York. A special program provided work to the college-attending
children of union members.
"A lot of those big shiny buildings in New York I worked in during
the ’60s," he says.
Olsen sees differences between his generation and today’s youth.
"I’m just representative of millions of people my age whose
came from hard times. My parents knew the Depression, they knew World
War II, they knew about basic existence being threatened. Our kids
just had plenty, we grew up and busted our tails to give our kids
"I think my generation in general was much more focused. When
I finished high school I had three choices: I could go into my
union, I could go to college, or I could join the army. Today you
see a lot of kids 25 or 28 who are still not sure what they want to
Olsen is divorced with two grown daughters, Krista, 26, who is a
representative and is pregnant with his first grandchild, and
30, "a language maven" who teaches five languages. He lives
in Montgomery Township.
Although he had no interest in history while in college, he is now
a self-labeled "Jefferson freak" and is also fascinated by
the Civil War, President Lincoln, and General George Custer. His
include golf and country dancing.
Armed with dual bachelor degrees in electrical engineering and physics
(Class of 1966), he also earned his master’s degree in physics at
Fairleigh Dickinson. He received his Ph.D in material science from
the University of Virginia, where he studied the atomic structure
and physics of metals and crystals. He did post-doctoral work in South
Africa in the physics department of the University of Port Elizabeth.
From 1972 to 1983 he worked at RCA Laboratories, now the Sarnoff
There he learned about semiconductor electronics from such scientists
as Henry Kressel and Chuck Nuese. "It was a great research lab
and still is," says Olsen about the incubator of color television,
advanced satellites, high-definition television, and a score of
spin-off companies. "I like to say I graduated from one of the
great universities in the world and that’s RCA Labs. I’ve been very
lucky because I’ve had a great assortment of mentors in my life."
In the 1970s optoelectronics, lasers, and photo detectors "were
just laboratory curiosities. Nobody made any money from it," he
says. "It was just applied physics research. Now optoelectronics
is just booming."
While at RCA he developed a photo detector which, like a solar cell,
converts light into electricity and is used in fiber optics. When
his first product was transferred to a factory at RCA, he began to
"think I could do this myself."
The desire to spin off his own business "just hit me like a bolt
of lightning. I had no background in business, my family isn’t
Although he says he loved it at RCA and was treated well, he left
for what he thought was a much bigger opportunity. In early 1984,
with Vladimir S. Ban (who now has a company called Photo Diode/Laser
Diode Inc. at Research Park) he started Epitaxx, locating the offices
and production facilities at the Princeton Service Center at 3490
Route 1 North.
During the early years, Olsen and his staff worked long hours and
had to deal with slow sales, quality control problems, and bare-bone
budgets. Olsen credits then octogenarian Ted Potts, who died in 1992,
with helping him cope with his career sea change. Potts owned the
Princeton Service Center and other valuable Mercer County properties.
Olsen says Potts "got me going in business, gave me the confidence
because I knew nothing about it. Mr. Potts taught me how to make the
most out of what you have, that you don’t have to have mahogany desks
and 500 square feet of space per person."
Financed with $1.5 million in venture capital from Warburg-Pincus
of N.Y. and DSV Partners of Princeton, Epitaxx became profitable by
1989 and had some 55 employees. After its sale to Nippon, Olsen
as president for another year and then in 1992 he started Sensors
When Epitaxx moved out and bought a new building near
the Mercer County airport, Potts invited Olsen to locate his new
at the same Princeton Service Center address, offering one year’s
free rent. Olsen started the company with a bank loan and grants from
the federal Small Business Innovation Research program.
He launched the new company with Marshall Cohen, and they developed
cameras based on the same detector material, indium gallium arsenide,
used in fiber optic light detectors. The cameras can be used for night
vision, sensing light in the near-infrared part of the light spectrum,
spotting ice on aircraft, and finding hot spots on power lines.
Another application of this technology is to use laser devices to
"You can tell something about the quality of the air and the
of pollution by the light that is reflected," Olsen says.
held radar-style devices are under development in several laboratories
which could allow police to check for auto and truck pollution on
Sensors Unlimited’s clients include telecommunication companies such
as AT&T, Lucent, Sprint, computer-maker Hewlett Packard and NASA’s
Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
At this point in his career, Olsen is more involved with the business
side of his company, though he still loves the technology, boasting
of a new, powerful four-inch wafer that will help the company meet
the demand for optical components.
"My expertise at this stage is in running the business as opposed
to the technology. We have a great staff of 85 people, a great
of young PhDs. People work very hard here and we plan to keep
He also credits his company’s continuing research and business
with both Sarnoff and Princeton University with helping Sensors
succeed. "The most important lesson I learned is that you’re
going to make mistakes," says Olsen, reflecting on his career.
While his second company made more missteps than his first, "the
difference is I dealt with them sooner."
"When situations don’t work out, I’m quick to confront it. What
I try not to do is let it sit and fester. And even if requires letting
someone go, you’re doing both people a favor if the situation isn’t
working out. You’re not doing a person any service by letting them
stay in an environment where they are unhappy."
"As I tell my daughters and anyone else I have an opportunity
to advise, always give 150 percent and if it doesn’t work out, move
on. Don’t look to blame, just give it your best shot, and then go
His competition is Bridgewater-based Hamamatsu and EG&G of Canada,
both billion dollar companies compared to his smaller, "mean and
lean" operation, he says. "One of the things I regret that’s
happened over the past 20 years is the demise of the corporate
Olsen says. Sarnoff and Bell Labs, which is gradually downsizing,
don’t do as much basic research as they did in the past, he says.
"I had all these giants I could learn from. I was the kid and
they were the masters. It was like an apprentice situation. Now you
have people go right from graduate school to start-up companies and
they don’t have that time to really learn the field the way we
"Everything is happening faster in the high-tech world and that
is both good and bad. People, when they’re 26 years old, don’t want
to wait till they are 65 for the payoff time, they want it when
30 — and some of them are getting it."
— David Salowitz
For his employees to get an early payoff is just what Sensors
founder Greg Olsen had hoped for. "People have worked very hard
for eight years and they are entitled to a reward, just as I am,"
says Olsen. "It is the best way to keep employees. We have a great
environment and all employees have stock options. We will create
dozen millionaires out of this deal."
Unlike some entrepreneurs, Olsen has never had a dream of going public
and welcomed a buyout. To go public would have been a huge
he says. "This way, I can get back to what I love doing, which
is building companies. It gives us the capital resources to do the
things we wanted to do, only five times faster. In two years we will
spend $50 million on equipment, furnishings, and expansions; without
it, probably $10 million." He has about 100 workers in 200,000
square feet and has already leased expansion space in two more
for 100 more, to be added over the next year.
On the hiring list: engineers and research scientists in the fields
of semiconductors, electrical engineering, packaging engineering;
production personnel to operate the new clean room manufacturing
and sales and marketing staff with expertise in telecommunications
and optical networking.
Olsen says he knew a payoff was imminent when companies interested
in advanced telecommunications technology, companies like Cisco, began
to knock on his door at Princeton Service Center. "We talked to
over 13 companies in the last year," he says.
The buyer, Finisar Corporation, provides gigabyte fiber optic
for high speed data networks. Located in Sunnyvale, California, it
trades as FNSR on Nasdaq (www.finisar.com). Based on a closing price
of $32 per share on the day the deal was announced, the buy is worth
more than $600 million. Stockholders of Sensors Unlimited may choose
to receive cash payments in lieu of up to 10 percent of the shares
Olsen will stay as president and CEO, and operate Sensors Unlimited
as a subsidiary. He will also be on the board of Finisar and have
the title of executive vice president. The deal is supposed to be
completed by the end of this year. "Epitaxx happened the way I
thought it would," says Olsen, "but here I am in it for the
Olsen resonates to the culture of Finisar, which he describes as
flat managed company with extremely competent people. They are doers,
straightforward and honest, they make rapid decisions, and are growth
oriented. People say the founder, Jerry Rawls, and I are a lot alike,
even though he is a better golfer than I."
Olsen will use his space at the U.S. 1 Technology Showcase for
which is now his biggest challenge. All new employees, he points out,
begin with an option for 2,000 shares. "Four years ago, that was
worth $1,000, but now it is on the order of $30,000. The hope is that
that will grow to $100,000" says Olsen.
"I think we have a great culture here. Free breakfast and lunch
for everybody, happy hour every Friday, paintball, softball, and
cruises. We’re big customers at the Princetonian Diner."
— Barbara Fox
08540. Gregory H. Olsen, president. 609-520-0610; fax, 609-520-0638.
Home page: www.sensorsinc.com.
If fiberoptic pathways in this century turn out to be
as profitable as the asphalt turnpikes of the last century, Barry
Zhang will do very well indeed. His company is inventing and
components for the telecommunications revolution and it has grown
by 50 percent in the last several months.
Founded by Zhang in 1993 as Princeton Optics, the company was sold
two years ago to ADC (Audio Development Company), a leading global
supplier of transmission and networking systems based in Minnetonka,
Minnesota. As part of the fiber division within ADC’s Broadband
Group (BCG), it helps ADC offer a single source for high-quality
One half of Zhang’s building at 250 Phillips Boulevard belongs to
the makers, and the other half to the designers. Zhang’s latest
is a circulator, a fiberoptic routing device introduced in June.
replaces a bulky design; this is more compact and integrated,"
says Zhang. The circulator sells in the neighborhood of $1,000 to
$2,000. DWDM products (dense wavelength division multiplex) are also
in the pipeline.
Joe Latore is manufacturing manager of ADC Telecommunications.
we make isolaters, collimators, polarizers, and circulators, costing
from $50 to $2,000," he says, for the Nortels and Lucents of the
world, who need to boost systems capacities. ADC is just one of many
firms — including JDS Uniphase — that make these components.
Latore was a ceramic engineer from Rutgers, Class of 1967, and he
worked for American Standard, Litton, and Deltronic Isowave in Dover,
New Jersey, before joining ADC last fall. The manufacturing facility
has hired 15 people in the last three months for a total of 42.
Zhang, 36, has a masters in physics from Tsinghua University in
Beijing and received his PhD at Princeton in mechanical and aerospace
engineering. His wife, Bonnie Liao, is a computational scientist at
Merrill Lynch. Most of Zhang’s family lives in Beijing, where his
brother is vice president of a fiberoptics company.
ADC began in 1935 with the invention of an audiometer, to test
and flourished in the 1980s when the regional Bell companies were
empowered to shop for their equipment in the general marketplace.
It pioneered in the shift from analog to digital and became the
leader in digital signal cross-connect devices.
"ADC has 16,000 people, and we have only 42 people here, but the
product line represents a new area for ADC, a higher margin product
and a higher level," says Zhang. "Overall, the fiberoptic
industry is growing, with new competition and acquisition. It is a
very dynamic industry."
Boulevard, Suite 255, Ewing. Barry Zhang, director, optical components
development. 609-771-4370; fax, 609-771-9790. Joe Latore,
manager. 609-671-2714; fax, 609-771-4371. Www.adc.com.
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