At 70, still focused like a laser
At age 60, C. Kumar N. Patel had a resume of accomplishments few scientists could match.
In a span of four decades, Patel invented the carbon dioxide laser, which revolutionized manufacturing and surgical procedures, obtained 38 patents and ran the physics and engineering departments at Bell Labs, a premier research operation historically attached to AT&T.;
In 1996, Patel, then vice chancellor for research at UCLA, reached the pinnacle of his career when he was honored for his “revolutionary achievements” by President Clinton.
Yet at a time when others would have retired and rested on their laurels, Patel left the relative comfort of academia, tapped his life savings and started a tiny technology company in Santa Monica that had no product or market.
“I had a midlife crisis at 60,” Patel said with a laugh as he roamed a somewhat run-down office building that once housed an insurance firm but now is filled with scientific equipment. It didn’t make his wife happy, but “everybody has to find a way by which they can do what they’ve wanted to do for many years.”
After trying times when Patel had to pull out money from his savings to pay employees, the company, which makes laser devices, broke even and last year generated $6 million in revenue.
Patel believes that could double in 18 months. The company is targeting new markets that he acknowledges he could not have imagined when he started it in 2000.
The company, Pranalytica Inc., started as a developer of sensors for analyzing human breath for disease, but is now leading the quest to make small lasers that can knock down antiaircraft missiles. The company’s name comes from the Sanskrit word for “breath.”
“One thing I learned is that a small company has to be very agile with respect to market opportunities,” said Patel, now 70. “You can’t create new science all of a sudden, but you can fill in the gaps in terms of where the needs are.”
Patel figured his initial idea of developing and marketing sensors that could detect potential diseases in the breath would be particularly useful for hospitals.
But with limited resources, Patel said he could not commercialize the technology in a way that could make it more available and affordable.
Having hit a barrier typically encountered by start-ups, he shifted the focus of the technology’s application to detecting minute pollutants in fabricating semiconductors. But that business was waylaid by the dot-com bust, which dried up venture capital.
Adjusting once more, Patel found that the technology could be useful for environmental research, particularly in detecting and measuring pollutants in the air. That’s when the company piqued the Pentagon’s interest.
Amid the rising concern about terrorists using chemical weapons, the Pentagon began looking for reliable, portable devices that could be used to detect chemical agents and explosives. Patel’s technology looked promising. In 2004, the Defense Department awarded the company a $13-million grant.
As Patel and his engineers -- many of them recent graduates of Harvey Mudd College in Pomona -- began developing the sensor, they discovered that the laser could be “powered up” to a level enabling it to disable electronic equipment.
Last year, the company demonstrated the technology to Pentagon researchers, who in turn alerted military contractors, including Northrop Grumman Corp., which was developing missile defense systems for commercial airplanes.
The “quantum cascade” laser could help fix a vexing problem in developing an affordable, lightweight system, officials with the military companies said.
The laser, about the size of a matchbox, blinds the guidance system of an antiaircraft missile even when it is miles away. The entire system could fit in a shoe box. The laser system currently being tested by Northrop fits in a 6-foot device shaped like a canoe and attached to the belly of an airliner.
“It’s no secret that everyone would like to have the capabilities that this technology promises,” said Jack Pledger, director of business development for Northrop’s infrared countermeasures systems. “Everybody is watching them closely.”
Chemical weapon sensors are slated for field testing in the next few months, and the anti-missile laser could be tested on aircraft within the year.
With federal grant money and brisk sales of its sensors for environmental research, “we don’t have to worry month to month about paying the bill,” Patel said. Since that 2008 breakthrough with the anti-missile laser, Pranalytica has grown to 15 employees.
In a year or two, Patel sees the company merging with a larger player, “not because of money, but because we need access to a larger market.” It would also need a larger workforce to service the devices.
If that happens, Patel said, he plans to start another company. “I have other ideas,” he said with a chuckle.
“It’s an addiction. When something good happens to you, you get a high,” Patel said, adding that running a business has also been very challenging.
“If anyone wants to stay young, I would strongly recommend it,” he said. “It focuses your mind so keenly because every single day you have to make sure you are bringing in enough business to keep employees happy.”
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Business: Pranalytica Inc. of Santa Monica is developing small lasers to knock down antiaircraft missiles. The company’s name comes from the Sanskrit word for “breath,” a reference to an early line of research that didn’t pan out.
Founder: C. Kumar N. Patel
Revenue: $6 million in 2008
Advice: “Everybody has to find a way by which they can do what they’ve wanted to do for many years.”