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Sweet smell of success

02 Jun 2003

From perfumes to photonics: Kathleen Perkins, the new chief executive of Breault, tells Oliver Graydon about her move into the optics industry and her plans for the firm.

From Opto & Laser Europe June 2003

Eleven years ago Kathleen Perkins left New York and a glitzy career marketing expensive cosmetics to take up a sales post in the dust and heat of "Optics Valley" in Arizona. In April, she became chief executive of the Breault Research Organization, an optical engineering firm in Tucson that is best known for its ASAP imaging simulation tool and consultancy services. The role arguably makes her one of the highest-ranking women in the optics industry. Opto & Laser Europe asked Kathleen Perkins to tell us more about Breault, its markets and her plans.

Given your background, how did you get involved with optics? I made this switch in 1992, when optics was not considered as sexy and high-tech as it is today. I came out of marketing fragrances for consumers. The move was a monumental shift and more of an initial stretch than I had anticipated. When I'm driving home, I've often thought that there's nothing that's more the opposite. I came from an industry that was based on wants and desires, but our software, ASAP, is based on needs.

What challenges did you encounter working with optical scientists? Coming at it from a more extravagant and image-conscious sector, I quickly had to establish myself as a good listener and someone who can be precise and serious when that is needed. When you work with PhD scientists you cannot be imprecise - but there's nothing wrong with using what you've learned in marketing to add flair. For me, it's very easy and natural now but in the beginning it can be daunting for a traditional marketing person to execute their plans, because scientists tend to challenge each statement. It forces very good discipline into marketing and is fine as long as the creativity is retained.

What are your priorities as the new CEO of Breault? Serving customers in different cultures and serving customers with different levels of optics understanding are both priorities. On the software side, we have been expanding our business in Asia. In places like Japan, Korea and China you need a product champion, someone who will vouch for you. Ideally this is a professor, a well-known physicist or someone with strategic position within a large company. You have to learn quickly and not make mistakes. We already have user blocks throughout Asia, so now it's more of a question of growing that business. As an example of extreme customer service, we have a senior optical engineer in place in Japan who speaks conversational Japanese. He instructs tutorials and provides customer support. We are now looking to do the same thing in Taiwan and Korea.

On the engineering side, it is essential to be able to convey optical concepts to people who may not know much about optics. Many of our customers come to Breault because they know they need help with the optics in their system, but it is up to our engineers to explain concisely what we can do and how it will help.

Describe some of the applications that ASAP has been used for. ASAP has been involved with everything from NIF [the National Ignition Facility], the XMM X-ray telescope and the LIGO gravitational-wave interferometer, to space-borne sensors, optical waveguides and photonic crystal fibres. It's amazing to think that the same software that helped design the Hubble Space Telescope is now responsible for the interior and exterior lighting of most cars. It's enormous fun and an honour to be at the front of a product like that. As for defence applications, precision-guided weapons, next-generation night-vision systems, satellite surveillance, ballistic missile defence - these all depend on complex optical systems.

Tell me about the key markets for Breault. The company was founded in 1979 with the core competency of stray light analysis, and initially most of the business was for the defence industry. Today, automotive, telecommunications and bio-optics are a big part of our business. LCD and LED modelling with ASAP is huge, especially in Asia. The bizarre thing is that ASAP was never intended to be a commercial product when it was created 20 years ago by Alan Greynolds. It was an in-house tool that engineers at Breault made very powerful to help solve their design problems.

What markets are hot right now? I call ASAP a "canary in a mine" type of product. When engineers leave one company they take the tool with them. Watching where our users are working gives an indicator of which markets are about to become big. By following them I get a pretty good indicator of what's bubbling, and right now its bio-optics. The collaboration between optical physicists and physicians is terribly exciting. The driver is the need to look inside the body non-invasively. Just think of blood-glucose monitoring, or vision and eye diseases. ASAP has already been used for confocal microscopy, endoscopes and many medical imaging systems.

There's also a new and difficult problem on the horizon, and that's the detection of biological weapons. Harmful biological agents can be monitored using light. I think that the search for optical signatures such as absorption, fluorescence and scatter are going to be the most interesting challenges facing optical physicists over the next 5-10 years.

What was your experience of the boom and bust of the telecoms market? We participated in the boom but we were fortunate because no one industry has completely dominated our business. During those supercharged years, customers would come to us and sometimes they would be moving from one company to another very quickly. After a firm has spent $100,000 to get an optical engineer they have no hesitation in giving them the best tools, like ASAP. We were seeing purchase orders coming through very quickly, and that's definitely changed. At one point we had a waiting list for our waveguide optics course. That's all changed now.

I have great faith in the optical engineers and physicists that were involved with telecoms because, even though it's been painful for some of them, I think as problem-solvers they are always going to find the next area to go into. This is a pattern that repeats itself typically every 5-10 years. When defence spending went down in the late eighties in the US the same thing happened, and many of those engineers went to work for HP, Intel, Ford... It was tough for about 24 months.

How do you overcome limited market size for your products? ASAP is both a marketing challenge and a marketing dream. It's a very well-defined market - PhD and advanced degree optical engineer and physicists - however, that is a relatively small market. If you look at engineers in the US, you have 400,000 mechanical, 300,000 electrical but only about 14,000 optical. There are not many optical engineers and their skill set is unique. Lots of our customers are secondary seats in firms. There's a natural kind of gravitation - if one engineer is using ASAP in a company and doing some ground-breaking work, others say "I want to know how to use this". We have blocks of up to 50 users in one company.

Secondly, by having experience in using ASAP, an engineer can command maybe 5 or 10% more earnings in the marketplace, so from a career standpoint lots of engineers want to get their hands on it. Thirdly, we run training courses for engineers each year and provide continuous professional education.

Breault: facts and figures Robert Breault, an optical engineer from the University of Arizona, US, founded the Breault Research Organization in 1979. Located in Tucson, Arizona, the firm now has about 50 employees and annual sales of around $7m (€6m). Aside from training courses and consultancy work, its most important revenue stream is its ASAP software, a ray tracing program for solving complex imaging and stray light calculations. Initially developed as an in-house tool, ASAP is now used by thousands of engineers in 35 different countries.

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