Corrections or additions?
This article by Michele Alperin was prepared for the May 9, 2001
edition of U.S. 1
Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Meeting Bandwith’s Boom: Vladimir Ban
Having conquered the broad expanses of continent and
ocean, fiber optics cable is inching its way closer and closer to
our homes. Even 10 years ago, both home and office communications
relied primarily on telephones, answering machines, the U.S. Postal
Service, and UPS or Federal Express. Today consumers and businesses
alike routinely use E-mail, faxes, and the Internet to communicate
data, video, multimedia, and voice. The capacity and speed demanded
by these enormous information streams require the larger bandwidth
available in fiber optic networks.
Over the last five to six years, says Vladimir Ban, president of PD-LD
Inc. (Photo Diode-Laser Diode), the fiber optics industry has
steep growth, "with a few hiccups," fueled by vastly
Internet use. "It used to be that voice was the major user, but
more and more, it’s data communications," he explains. His
firm recently expanded from Research Park to the former AT&T site
in Hopewell, where it built 13,000 square feet next to the site’s
Morton Collins, chairman of PD-LD’s board, says he realized years
ago that the search for increased bandwidth was going to be the
force in the telecommunications industry. His venture capital company,
Data Science Ventures (DSV) Partners, had funded the startup that
became Times Fiber Communications, now a publicly traded company in
Connecticut. "I was interested in fiber optics 20 years before
anyone else had heard of it," says Collins. "I could see we’d
need much more bandwidth." According to the then-current
of physics, the highest possible bandwidth was 9,600 bits per second.
"It was obvious that something dramatic had to change,"
Collins places the knee of the fiber optics growth curve at about
three years ago. Now this growth is creating important niches for
companies like PD-LD, which packages fiber optic devices. However,
PD-LD’s success is due not only to the strong demand for fiber optics,
but also to an unusual partnership between Ban, Collins, and Stephen
Forrest, chairman of the electrical engineering department at
University. PD-LD’s forward momentum is fueled by a synergy between
these three men: the business and financial acumen of Collins; the
specialized fiber optics knowledge and research capabilities of
and the entrepreneurial instincts, management skills, and
expertise of Ban.
Much of PD-LD’s product development has been the fruit of
joint research interactions between Ban and Forrest and their
organizations. Perhaps symbolic of their mutuality is the fact that,
early on, Ban moved one of his scientists to work on site in Forrest’s
lab, and he is still there today. Their earlier cooperation covered
various government contracts, and later moved into developing products
for production at PD-LD.
More recently, Ban and Forrest have been working together on passive
optical devices that route light of different wavelengths. In this
area, maintains Forrest, "commercial applications are abundant,
and we have gotten tons of money."
Another joint project, though it did not yield product for PD-LD,
eventually brought in venture capital and licensing fees. This
project, which involved the growth of organic materials, says Forrest,
"took on a life of its own and brought a significant amount of
venture money into the company." (It was eventually licensed to
a third company, Universal Display Corporation on Phillips Boulevard,
now a public company that trades as PANL.)
Forrest sees his lab as important to Ban, because it "can perfect
or test ideas rather quickly and inexpensively. If they work out,
they can go into production."
And what does Forrest get out of the connection? Both he and his
"get intellectual problems and research funding that pays the
research bills," he says, including subcontracts from the United
States government and money directly from PD-LD.
Forrest earned a bachelor’s in physics from the University of
at Berkeley in 1972 and has a PhD in physics from the University of
Michigan. He worked for Bell Labs at the University of Southern
Moving to Princeton in 1992, he directed the Advanced Technology
for Photonics and Optoelectronic Materials before heading the
of electrical engineering.
PD-LD’s bread and butter business has been the packaging
of laser diodes and LEDs (light emitting diodes). Its premier
coupled lasers, use an existing technology that PD-LD has made more
efficient. This technology is used to connect optical fibers to laser
transmitters and detectors. When they convert electrical signals into
laser light, they must target the core of the optical fiber —
a diameter one tenth that of a human hair.
"It is difficult to aim a laser into such an extremely small
explains Ban, because the technology requires extremely tight
tolerances and must satisfy stringent telecommunications requirements.
"Even the smallest movement of fiber, say a micron or less, and
the light will not be injected into the optical fiber."
PD-LD has been growing rapidly. With 60 employees today, as compared
to only 15 at the end of 1996, PD-LD has experienced sales growth
of 200 to 300 per cent each year over the last few years. This growth
was made possible by increased production under Uri Abrams and a
sales effort under Tom DeBerardine. In 1999 and 2000 PD-LD made the
Deloitte & Touche list of the 50 fastest growing companies in New
Jersey and was also among the top 500 fastest growing companies in
the United States.
Ban attributes this rapid expansion to strong products, an effective
organization of production, and a rather high demand from customers,
which include small companies that purchase components for their
all the way "up the food chain" to companies like Nortel and
JDS Uniphase, which build huge networks.
As financial maven, Collins cautions that PD-LD is "growing about
as fast as it can grow." Shipments are increasing dramatically
each month, due partly to the enlarged facility. He warns that
can only grow a company so fast," and says he will make sure it
grows no faster. "You can’t take orders, if you can’t fill
he maintains, although so far PD-LD has had no problems in this area.
He also counsels against getting into new product areas too soon.
On the other hand, PD-LD is apparently not being affected by the
in the communications business. "We’re in the part that’s growing
the fastest," says Collins. "The demand for bandwidth is
at this point in time."
When asked what effect the recent layoffs at JDS Uniphase might have
on the fiber optics industry, Ban responds, "It is possible that
we are going through a briefly contracting phase. However, the demand
for fiber optics networks is far from being satisfied." And, he
adds, "After all, half of the population of this planet has never
yet made a phone call."
Collins has worked closely with Ban since DSV Partners invested in
Epitaxx, a fiber optics company that Ban co-founded in 1983 with Greg
Olsen. (Epitaxx is now owned by JDS Uniphase, and Olsen has moved
on to found Sensors Unlimited.) In 1996, Ban asked Collins to join
him in building PD-LD. He did and became PD-LD’s chairman of the
Collins saw little risk in getting involved with PD-LD. Ban had
participated in building one company successfully: "He had managed
the company, provided technical inputs, and hired top technical
An engineer by training, Collins went to the University of Delaware
(Class of 1958) and has his Ph.D. from Princeton University. He was
the founder and CEO of Scientific Research of Princeton and of DSV,
whose several incarnations have provided venture capital and
assistance to early-stage high-technology companies. Today he serves
as director of a number of companies and is also an active pilot,
avid skier, scuba diver, and underwater photographer. The father of
four children, he lives in Princeton.
Once Collins became the chair of PD-LD, he and Ban together
what we wanted to be when we grew up." The answer was that they
would build a company that was very profitable and had good cash flow
— based on things they already knew how to do. Then they would
"strike at a high point on the technological curve," beyond
where people are now.
That new product is now in PD-LD’s laboratory, being developed by
a group assembled by staff member Boris Volodin. "We are
novel products, based on photosensitive glass, for fiber optic
says Ban, "which should have significant advantages over
products." These wavelength routers will enable the dropping and
adding of wavelengths in DWDM (dense wavelength division multiplexing)
systems, which provide the greatest bandwidth capacity and hence are
used almost exclusively in long-distance networks. (DWDM transmits
data from different sources, with different protocols, together to
an optical fiber; each discrete signal is carried on its own separate
light wavelength.) The new product will be important, explains Ban,
"because it is technically difficult to resolve various
"Because DWDM uses many closely-spaced wavelengths, each carrying
a separate signal," Ban explains, "the trick is to separate
and combine those wavelengths efficiently, without disturbing the
adjacent wavelength." As a vastly simplified example, imagine
a hypothetical optical fiber, starting in New York and ending in San
Francisco. That fiber carries several wave lengths, one of which must
transport a signal only part of the distance — to Cleveland. The
Cleveland signal and its associated wavelength will have to drop out
of the wavelength stream that is on its way to San Francisco. In
any traffic generated in Cleveland must come back into fiber. The
wavelength router will drop and add the Cleveland wavelength without
affecting the others.
Ban expects PD-LD’s module to be "more sensitive, more selective,
simpler in construction, and presumably cheaper" than currently
available devices. "True growth will come with photosensitive
glass," he says, "because in that area we will be in the
forefront, rather than one of several companies that use coupling
Collins goes further. He claims that the new products "are
technologies, which, if successful, will change the nature of
Forrest affirms both assessments. If the wavelength routers are
he says, "they will have a profound impact on the business of
PD-LD," which will grow significantly "over its currently
healthy state." In addition, if the project is successful, "it
will generate tremendously good science for work at Princeton as well
as a whole range of products."
Collins foresees only three potential obstacles that might affect
PD-LD’s success. Although the wavelength router appears to be working
in the laboratory, it remains an open question whether it can be
into a manufacturable product. For PD-LD’s existing products, an
danger is competition — other companies that make a comparable
product for less money. As a finance person, Collins also worries
about the possibility of needing financing when no external capital
is available. But, he observes, "the world is awash in
And so is PD-LD for the moment. Collins says, "We are very
and right now we are in great shape for the foreseeable future."
Vladimir Ban (pronounced bahn) hails from Zagreb, Croatia, where his
parents still live, and his father is a professor emeritus of
In 1964, after graduating with a degree in chemical engineering from
the University of Zagreb, Ban finagled his way out of the country,
as a graduate assistant at Penn State University. "In those
he remembers, "there was strict communism, and it was a rare
that they would let someone out." The move allowed Ban to take
advantage of the higher-quality technical education available in the
United States. He earned his PhD in material (solid state) science
from Penn State.
Ban is married to Connie Sayen, a child advocate who teaches at the
Crossroads Nursery School at the Institute for Advanced Study. Her
late father James C. Sayen, son of the Trenton industrialist, was
an environmentalist who was instrumental in creating the
Canal State Park and many of the county and township parks. The Bans
have two daughters: Sophie, a senior at Princeton High School, and
Sasha, a sophomore at Barnard.
At Sarnoff, Ban worked on semiconductor growth techniques for 15
At Epitaxx, Ban learned "to be an entrepreneur and to do well
under relatively modest circumstances and resources." Epitaxx
was sold to Nippon Plate Glass in 1990 for $12 million. When asked
why they sold the company, Ban explains that their initial investment
had quintupled. "That was before the days of insane valuations
of fiber optic companies."
At PD-LD, Ban has focused on the importance of building a good team.
"You have to respect others and understand that you are only one
part of the engine," says Ban. "Even if you are the steering
wheel, the car doesn’t go without the other wheels." Collins
Ban a great delegator. "To be successful and build a large
you have to hire very good people and delegate responsibility and
authority to them," Collins explains. He points out that most
executives who fail do so because they delegate responsibility, but
not authority. But, he continues, "there’s a fine line between
delegation and abdication. My job is to keep Vladimir on that
Describing his relationship with Ban, Collins says they are both
people who share mutual respect. "There is no substitute for a
long relationship and seeing the world in pretty much same way,"
Ban has the more detailed technical experience, whereas Collins has
worked with many different companies — all high technology.
a cooperative effort," explains Collins. "I handle the board
and help Vladimir with financial considerations. And with the building
Collins was also instrumental in attracting additional investment
last autumn from the investment-banking firm of Unterberg Tobin. This
infusion of funds enabled PD-LD to move into its new facility on March
1. The new space is 13,000 square feet, more than three times as large
as the previous facility, and it will support PD-LD’s larger staff
as well as its upgraded equipment. The Hopewell facility also boasts
two clean rooms, which use filtered air and have an extremely low
dust and contaminant content. These are necessary for making
devices, with circuits so small that a piece of dust would destroy
Princeton, says Ban, has always had a strong background in photonics,
lasers, detectors, and fiber optics, with much of the development
in these fields occurring at Sarnoff, Bell Labs, and Princeton and
Rutgers universities. The fact that the Princeton area is viewed as
a major cultural center, within driving distance of Philadelphia and
New York, makes "it is easy to attract well-educated people,"
Musing on what may have contributed to his career development, Ban
comments, "By chance I came across something on the Internet on
the order of birth. I am a first born, and these guys have a tendency
of thinking they have to do something special in life. I have some
of that in me."
— Michele Alperin
Pennington-Hopewell Road, Hopewell 08525. Vladimir Ban, president.
609-564-7900; fax, 609-564-7900. Home page: www.pd-ld.com.
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