An interview with Dr. John Marsh, conducted by Dr. Milton M.T. Chang
John Marsh is chief technical officer and co-founder of Intense Ltd. as well as professor of optoelectronic systems at the University of Glasgow in the UK. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge (BA), Liverpool (MEng) and Sheffield (PhD), with all degrees in electronic engineering. He has published and presented his work widely and holds many patents — in particular, various integration technologies for photonic devices. He is a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the IEEE, the IET, the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Arts. He currently is president of the IEEE Laser & Electro-Optics Society (IEEE/LEOS). He was awarded the 2006 IEEE/LEOS Distinguished Service Award and was jointly awarded the 2006 IEEE/LEOS Engineering Achievement Award.
Milton Chang is managing director of Incubic Venture Fund, which invests in businesses related to photonics technologies. Former CEO/president of Newport Corp. and New Focus Inc., he sits on the boards of Precision Photonics and of OpVista. He earned a BS from the University of Illinois and MS and PhD degrees from California Institute of Technology. He is a fellow of IEEE, of OSA and of the Laser Institute of America (LIA) and is a former president of the IEEE Laser & Electro-Optics Society and of LIA. He is on the board of trustees of Caltech and is a member of its Committee of 100.
Milton Chang: It would be interesting to get your view on business with your professor background. To start with, tell us about Intense.
John Marsh: Intense was started in 2000 out of my research group at the University of Glasgow with a business plan focused on the telecom industry. At the end of 2002, we became increasingly focused on nontelecom markets because the telecom market was hurting pretty badly.
How did you handle investors amidst the telecom bubble?
You have to be open with the investors. You don’t want to “cry wolf,” but at the same time, you want to highlight an issue that you see coming because if you don’t, it looks like you are just not competent.
What are the applications you go after?
We started in the UK, where we are currently looking at the printing market, essentially using technologies for pumps in telecom applications and migrating to wavelengths relevant to the printing industry. One thing that’s interesting is that every laser in the printhead has to work; there is absolutely no redundancy allowed, so you must have a very low failure rate. We are making arrays about 64 elements in width with zero redundancy, and we’re operating at a couple of hundred milliwatts per element, operating at 830 and 808 nm. We’re also moving into red arrays.
What are the challenges?
First of all, getting good yield. Even if you’re targeting a 60 percent yield for a 64-element array, you need a yield of about 99.5 percent for individual lasers. We use the integration technology we started with at the university, but making it a manufacturable process has been a major challenge.
What are the lessons learned?
The lesson I learned is that, when you get an unexpected result in research, you should try to work out why it is happening and discover a way to use it.
Another good lesson is that you have to be opportunistic in science because you can do things that are quite interesting and fundamental. But you’ve got to focus as well because it is a lot harder to stop a project than it is not to start it in the first place. So you have to balance that breadth of opportunities with really achieving something. Winners get to know when to stop projects. The same thing could be said about business. One example is we probably stayed with too much telecom activity for too long.
How do you work with your customers?
If you’re going to come up with the best solution for your customers, you’ve got to keep asking them questions and comb over every one of their specifications. You’ve also got to understand your limitations and be confident about what you can achieve. It’s quite a hard thing for people in a startup company to talk confidently when a real customer puts a spec sheet in front of them that’s quite difficult. I think it’s a very useful distinction between being customer-focused and customer-driven.
By driven, I mean you literally could be driven by the last thing the customer says to you, which is a danger because they may have just cobbled up some data sheets to come up with the specifications. A lot of customers don’t really know what they want. When you’re customer-focused, you’re actually listening to the customer all the time, and you’re trying to come up with what will be the best solution for them.
So how do you manage that?
For a serious project, it is really quite critical that you pick your best people who can specify the problem closely enough to get a good result quickly. Internally you can make a mistake and go back the next day and say, “Oh, I made a mistake,” but with customers you can’t keep changing the specifications because you will certainly lose credibility. For the customer, you’ve got to deliver.
How does all of this translate organizationally?
You’ve got to be confident within the organization so people get motivated when you take on what appear to be impossible projects. You’ve got to look at ways to manage the challenge, I suppose. What you don’t want to do is to bury problems; you have to be open about them.
The other thing I’ve learned, quite forcibly, is that even small companies need the discipline and support mechanisms of large companies from a pretty early stage. But if they start getting too much of the big company approach, then they become as slow as a big company. You have to keep a balance.
What are the qualities you look for when hiring?
I look for people who are motivated and open to new ideas. I look for people who are pretty versatile, who will have a reasonable understanding of the adjacent areas or who want to learn about adjacent areas.
How can we better prepare engineering students for business?
I don’t know how you encourage and promote the right way of thinking about industry through the education system. It’s almost like you need to go and do it. One thing that the US is far better at than Europe is the experience that you get from going through more than one startup. In Europe, a person is almost damned in the eyes of investors if he joined a startup and failed, whereas in the US, investors, I think, are much more open to recognizing that that person’s learned a lot through that experience and won’t make the same mistakes again.
So, how should a young engineer work?
Starting in the organization, the first thing you would want to do is take on project management. As a project manager, you’ll learn how to deliver on time and also get some expe-rience with financial manage-ment. You will also develop the front-end skills interacting with the customer on an almost daily basis. A technical person has to get some marketing and sales skills. That’s the most important thing. You need to get out there and sell your technology to customers and come back with a considered view that it’s possible to implement. You’ve got to be able to explain what’s realistic to achieve and be quite persuasive to decision makers who may not be technical. I hear comments about individuals that they’ve got good business ideas but they can’t actually bring people with them. And that’s obviously not going to be effective.
What about basic skills like negotiation?
You’ve got to develop some of the persuasion skills that you get from working in sales and marketing. Presentation skills are not just standing in front of people; they’re written as well. Writing skills are undervalued these days. Maybe that’s one area where our education system can do more.
Any thoughts as LEOS president?
One of the major challenges is developing a long-term strategic plan. LEOS does many things very well, but there’s so much it doesn’t do. For example, we do very well in communications, but in many other areas of applications, I believe LEOS doesn’t have the presence it should. So it’s part of that strategic plan: Identify areas that are becoming important and move into them — and of course, absolutely becoming more international.