(original essay published in January 2002)
One of my favorite stories about Finisar is how we got started in the optical module business. Today, this is our largest market segment, but it was not exactly what we planned when we started out.
It’s important to note that Finisar wasn’t started with a grand plan in mind. I was stuck in a dead end job without a future. So, I quit my job, convinced my former employer to hire me back as a consultant, and rented some space in a corrugated tin-covered Quonset hut in Menlo Park, California. Today that same building complex is the largest privately owned solar powered industrial space in California with an installed capacity of 400 KW!
Along with a few colleagues, I did consulting work for Raynet, Bellcore and then Tekna (a scuba diving company). Then in August 1990, a fellow called us up with an interesting proposition. He was the engineering director of what was essentially an intellectual property and marketing shell. The company had a clever name, Explore Technology, and that described precisely what they were doing.
Explore Technology had been awarded a patent for their ability to “burst” data from an audio or video server to a client at faster than real time rates. (Ultimately this group was able to license this technology to Microsoft and other large companies) They wanted to contract with us to do the engineering while they focused on marketing the idea. The first step was to deliver a demonstration prototype for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 1991.
We were hungry for business so we agreed.
Creating our Technology Edge
We designed a solid-state disk drive, SCSI based, 128 MB of DRAM, which at the time cost $30,000 to build – just for the parts. The memory was dual-ported. The first port was standard SCSI and the second was a Gb/s serial data port that would drain the entire memory from the box in a couple of seconds or less. For its day, it was pretty cool.
Finisar also developed, at its own expense, a transceiver to connect the video-on-demand server to the client. This transceiver was based on CD laser technology, HotRod Gb/s chips from Gazelle (later a part of Triquint) and other chips we acquired wherever we could find them.
We were pleased that somehow it all worked.
We finished assembling the boxes over the Christmas holidays, loaded two sets of them into a rented van and drove to Las Vegas for the 1991 CES. We set them up on the show floor just across from a booth blasting music from 500-watt car stereo boom boxes. Despite the competition, our demo worked for the duration of the show. Whew!
After successfully reaching our first milestone, we continued to add functionality and features to the system for perhaps another year or so. Explore Technology changed its name to Instant Video Corp and later to Burst.com. Today, Richard Lang is still the CEO of the venture. He is also the inventor of the dual deck VCR sold by Go Video. He and his wife are interesting, creative people.
The Rock and Roll Connection
During the course of the Explore Technology project, we found out that the company was funded in part by the Irish rock band U2. That meant that Finisar was financially connected to famous Rock Stars! We laughed about this late one night while we worked feverishly to get ready for CES, but we never thought much about it until a few months later when U2 came to the Oakland Coliseum for the Zoo 2 tour. They were performing with Public Enemy and someone else very forgettable. We got a call and were told that the “lads” wanted to see our technology first hand. We were jazzed.
We invited U2 to visit us in Menlo Park, but the response came back quickly, “No thanks, no time for that, we will get you backstage passes and you can demo the system to the band before the concert.” I haggled to get some additional passes for our two older children and shortly thereafter we were off for Oakland.
I’ve been backstage at only one rock concert in my entire life. The Zoo 2 tour was a bit overwhelming. There were 20 acres of synthetic paradise brought to Oakland aboard 88 semi trucks. It became a small city set up with luxurious eating tents, massage rooms, quiet rooms, phone banks and more. We collected our “laminate” (as the passes are called) and drove our stuff into the core of this artificial village.
We were assigned a room in U2’s private area. Every once in a while someone would show up and use the private phones. We were not sure who was who. Pretty soon, we were informed “they are coming.” A few moments later, in walked Bono with Wynona Ryder, Edge and the rest of the group. Richard Lang was leading them and they talked energetically among themselves. The silky quality of each of their voices was astounding. It’s a wonder that everyone with an Irish accent is not a professional singer, it seems like a natural talent for them.
The Finisar people involved with this project included Mark Farley and Mike Santullo today partners with me at Clean Tech Circle and Greta Light (now a system engineering manager at Finisar).
At one point one of the U2 members nodded towards us and asked our escorts, “Who are the white coat fellows?” This was their term for engineers. After brief introductions, we proceeded to demonstrate the equipment and had a great time talking and laughing with them. After the demo, we ate at the meal tent and then moved out front to enjoy the concert.
The concert venue was equipped with so much more technology than our little boxes contained that we were later thankful we did our demo before the show. This way, we were able to keep our bravado high and feel good about what we had created, even in the shadow of a coliseum full of state-of-the-art gear.
The Mother of All Finisar Transceivers
Over the course of the next two years as we continued to work for Explore Technology, I would estimate that they paid Finisar more than $1 million for engineering services. We used the profits from that work to jump-start the company, pay our bills, purchase equipment and design some pretty neat technology.
The original laser module inside the video server that we built for Explore is the progenitor of most of the optical devices sold by the present-day Finisar, representing a nearly $400 million/year business.
So, if you get a chance to read this, Bono, please know that the “lads” here at Finisar are really glad we met you. And we’re very appreciative that you’ve seen fit to invest some of your resources in high technology ideas.