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INSIDE VIEW: CEO shares secrets to running a successful high-tech start-up

19 Mar 2007

What are the key attributes that make a successful business leader? In this month's interview Per Ibsen, CEO of Kaleido Technology, offers his thoughts on what it takes to manage a technology company.

Per Ibsen is well versed in taking technology into the marketplace. Back in 1991, he founded Danish firm Ibsen Microstructures to focus on the industrial application of diffractive optics. The company was sold to ADC Telecommunications in 2000 for $80 m (€60 m) and then became Ibsen Photonics following a management buy-out one year later. Today, Ibsen is putting his management skills into practice as CEO of Kaleido Technology – a start-up specializing in freeform and integrated optics.

What personal qualities do you need to lead a technology business?
Persistency and motivation are essential. It is very important to be able to motivate not only your employees, but also the board and venture capitalists. You have to remain enthusiastic even when the firm hits stumbling block after stumbling block. It can take a lot of research to get the business up and running and this can involve spending long periods of time in uncharted territory.

In fact, when you are putting together a business plan, you can be sure that there will be surprises along the way. You try to take everything into consideration at the start, but there will always be things that come up and make it harder for the company to reach its goals. When we started Kaleido, we were confident that we could purchase equipment that would help us leap towards our goal of producing moulded integrated optics. It turned out that when we bought the equipment and squeezed the machines as hard as we could, they just didn't live up to our expectations. The state of the art was much lower than we had perceived, which came as a surprise as I have built million-Euro clean rooms where usually 85–95% of the equipment is functioning to specification.

I would say that it's a good idea to multiply the time schedule for reaching your goals by two, three or even pi, as some people suggest. You should be very flexible and fast to adapt to changes once you are on the move. It is important to communicate to shareholders and other interested parties where the company is now and what its future looks like.

What do you think is the best way to prepare for the role?
Good business-development skills are important and you must understand the technology. Some people say that a CEO can have a solely commercial background, but in this case you would need to be very fast in getting to grips with the technology. A product manager who has developed a product from its infancy through to a mature level, touching on all of the different areas and functions, including finding strategic partners and negotiating business agreements, would be an ideal candidate.

I took a different path. Following my MSc, I was employed for just one year in a company making embossed holograms for credit cards. When the firm went bankrupt, I had the opportunity to buy all of the equipment and to continue. It was a hard way to learn and I can see now that with the background of a product manager the firm's development time could have been cut by several years.

How can starting up a company be made easier? In Denmark, when a company is at seed level then you are typically working with first-round funding of around €2 m. The trend is to go through many "pipette" financing rounds. In my opinion, it would be better to take a lot more money in the first round and have the peace and quiet to focus on the business. This is the case in the US where the figure is probably closer to €15 m for the first funding round.

You should try and enhance the group of people around the company as a way of bringing in additional experience. At the beginning, the skills of the start-up are limited, so you should try to close the holes. You can do this through consultants or by putting together an advisory board that contains technologists as well as investment managers. Company founders should admit that they need help and get professional advice.

What is your dream for Kaleido?
I want to integrate optics, prisms, lenses and everything in one monolithic unit. If you look at electronics, it was only when components became integrated that applications started to take off, and this is what we want to achieve with Kaleido. Using wafer-moulding techniques, our dream is to offer a rugged design with many functions in one simple plate. Today, we make machined components with freeform surfaces, but the final plan is to provide wafer-moulded optics. We have been talking with a lot of Asian market leaders and they are very interested in the technology. Right now our next step is to find a strategic partner.

• This article originally appeared in the March 2007 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.

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