By Becky Hurley
Founded: 2005 by CEO and President Don Sipes
No. of employees: 6
Chicago transplant Don Sipes summons science and growing demand for laser optics to push the technology envelope and drive growth
A quiet front office displaying the latest issues of Physics Today and Electronics magazine provides only a hint of what happens behind the innovative Optical Engines curtain.
The company is located in downtown Colorado Springs – perhaps a surprising choice for a firm that specializes in creating custom laser fiber optic tools for military, NASA, commercial and scientific applications.
“We moved from Chicago in 2009. The family just fell in love with how beautiful it is here,” says CEO and founder Don Sipes, adding that proximity to potential customers at Front Range defense agencies and medical research firms was a secondary consideration.
Turns out location really doesn’t matter when a company’s core product serves so many and varied markets. Powerful light energy, packaged, wrapped and directed is used in hundreds of applications ranging from automobile manufacturing to movie theaters, satellite communications, HDTVs and more.
“It’s mind-blowing how many ways electricity amplified through fiber glass is used and applied,” he says pointing out that CD players, machining/welding companies and hospital surgical equipment are all incorporate laser technology. It’s very precise.”
During a tour of the facility, Sipes mentions that a client is down from a medical research company in Boulder.
“We’re working on a (surgical) medical application for them,” he explains, noting that medical technologies typically require FDA and other agencies’ approval, a long process.
Sipes own background includes work for some of the country’s most notable corporations including Cisco and Amoco Laser Company and Sunovia Solar Technologies. He has also been a featured speaker at NASA Space Communications conferences.
During his client conference, Senior Engineer Jason Tafoya, takes a few minutes to preview a freshly fabricated thread-like glass fiber optic filament that’s ready to test. To the untrained eye, it’s a simple piece of curved fiber optic wire. But for scientists and researchers hoping to build precise equipment for cataract surgery or artery reconstruction, such products can be life-altering.
Commercial clients are increasing, though in its first five years, success has been driven primarily by government grants and fiber optic sales to scientific research companies.
There are few walk-ins at Optical Engines. In fact, the entrance is often locked, probably to ensure few distractions. A prospective client on the phone asks Tafoya how the company might team to provide help with a laser systems problem.
“It’s a little like the Big Bang Theory around here,” says technician Dan Schulz, pointing to a formula-covered white board.
Products for private sector clients typically run between $10,000 and $100,000. They include a wide range of high power laser systems for industries that need cost-effective semiconductor laser systems, fiber lasers and specialized solid-state lasers, and optical amplifiers. Many of the company’s suppliers are international firms.
“We import very special fiber from Denmark. It’s rugged and cost-effective. So far nobody else has been able to capitalize on its strengths like we have,” Sipes says, adding that some of his most exciting applications now incorporate the innovative material.
The market for such products is endless – and growing.
Since 2010, Optical Engines has been awarded millions of dollars in Small Business Innovation Research grant funding for Department of Defense, National Institute of Health and Department of Energy project research. One 2013 grant was developed for a project at the United States Air Force Academy.
The awards have enabled the company to pursue a growing number of private sector partnerships and projects.
“Our goal is to find and develop a killer application, one that has broad potential in the commercial or defense market,” Sipes explains adding that his company looks forward to manufacturing fiber optic products of its own.
Challenges: “Our overhead is 80 percent labor costs. That means we need to bootstrap our operation through government and scientific research grant awards while increasing our commercial, defense and aerospace products.
Opportunities: “Our business and the opportunities it represents -- are constantly evolving. There’s so much pent-up demand – and we really don’t have any competitors.”
Needs: “Ongoing scientific research funding for cash flow and the ability to find specialized technicians and engineers.”