It happened during last fall’s celebration of Ramadan, the monthlong Islamic holiday marked by total fasting from dawn until sunset.
Lotfi Belkhir’s oldest daughter, Imaan, 17, wanted to continue her daily routine of running long distances with other members of her school’s track team but was concerned that she might become dehydrated. Imaan, a senior at Victor Senior High School, sought her dad’s advice.
“Go for it,” he said. “You’ll never know until you try.”
She did-and ran her best times ever.
Risk taking is second nature to Belkhir, CEO of Kirtas Technologies Inc., a Victor firm that specializes in book digitization. The native of Algeria and former research scientist and executive for Xerox Corp. founded the company in 2001.
Kirtas targets markets such as university libraries, government agencies, museums, corporations, publishing firms and service bureaus. The company sells and leases patented automatic book scanners, software and related digitization services that enable customers to digitize bound books. As a result, users around the globe have access to fragile, historic documents, records and rare books.
With roughly 80 employees in the United States as well as two staffers each in the Netherlands and Algeria, Kirtas ranked fifth on the Rochester Top 100 list of fastest-growing privately held companies for 2008. The business also ranked No. 199 last year on Inc. magazine’s list of the 500 fastest-growing private companies in the United States.
Sales for 2008 stood at $14.5 million, up from $9.7 million in 2007 and $3.9 million in 2006.
“We provide a way of giving a second life to millions of books,” says Belkhir, 44, noting that the world’s 1 million libraries contain 16 billion volumes. “Digitization gives users both preservation and access to precious, historic documents.”
Despite its technology and rapid growth, Kirtas has faced some setbacks, including the end of a deal with Microsoft Corp. last year.
“Microsoft in June 2008 decided to pull out of the book digitization business because they felt that they couldn’t keep up with Google,” he says. “Microsoft canceled our partnership with them, as they did with several other organizations, but that cancellation had nothing to do with our performance.
“We had to let go of 35 to 40 employees who were dedicated to the Microsoft project.”
The Microsoft project had lasted roughly two years, starting in 2006.
Growing up in Algeria
Belkhir was born in Setif, Algeria, the youngest of six children. His father, Moussa Belkhir, now 85, supported his family by selling metal shelving units to banks and warehouses. Active in political opposition to the ruling French regime, Moussa was jailed for six years, from 1955 to 1961. During that time, Lotfi Belkhir’s mother, Fatma Benidir, now 80, helped support the family by sewing bridal gowns.
Education was paramount to the couple, and today their six offspring include business executives, a dentist and a gynecologist.
In his youth, Lotfi Belkhir’s first passion was theoretical physics.
“I’ll never forget it: We were in ninth grade, learning about Newton’s Laws, and a light bulb went on for me,” he says. “I went up to the teacher right after class, asked if I could borrow his textbook, ran home and devoured the whole thing by the next morning. I knew at that moment that I wanted to be a physicist.”
Belkhir studied the subject at the University of Setif for three years, then transferred to the University of Algiers to complete his bachelor’s degree in 1986. Ranked at the top of his class for physics majors, Belkhir won a full scholarship for graduate work from Algeria’s Ministry of Research and Higher Education and headed to the United States.
“I’ll never forget the day. It was Jan. 3, 1987, and 12 of us from Algeria landed at JFK airport, boarded a limousine and saw Christmas lights everywhere as we made our way to C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University for an intensive six-month English course to prepare us for the GRE exams,” Belkhir recalls. “I had never seen such beauty and wealth in my life.”
Three months later, he passed the GRE and was admitted to programs at the University of Michigan and University of
Wisconsin at Madison. Belkhir chose to stay in the New York area and attend SUNY Stony Brook, earning a master’s degree in 1989 in laser physics and quantum chaos.
SUNY Stony Brook then offered him a full scholarship to pursue his doctoral degree, which he earned in 1993 after producing a dissertation titled “Correlated Electron Systems.”
“My original plan was to return to Algeria, but my country was in the middle of a civil war and my folks encouraged me to stay where I was,” Belkhir recalls.
In 1991, he did return to his homeland to meet his bride, Souad. The couple’s fam-ilies had arranged the marriage. The Belkhirs now have a busy household of five daughters and one son.
When their oldest, Imaan, was still a baby, the family ventured out to Bloomington, Ind., where Belkhir started post-doctoral work in physics at Indiana University.
“But I really started having second thoughts about physics and research, and wondered if I really wanted to write articles that only 10 people around the world would ever be interested in reading,” Belkhir says.
So he switched gears. Creating software for a startup industrial research company that would send electromagnetic waves through equipment to detect cracks, Belkhir realized that he enjoyed the practical, commercial aspects of physics.
That discovery in 1995 led him to Xerox Corp. in Rochester.
“Xerox was looking to hire the next generation of xerographers, who would develop the next wave of products, and I jumped at the chance to join the company,” Belkhir says.
For the next six years, Belkhir held various positions with Xerox, working in research and development, including at the Palo Alto Research Center, and also as executive assistant to Rafik Loutfy, senior vice president for corporate strategy and planning. Belkhir also earned an online master’s degree in management of technology from the National Technological University in 2000.
It was at the West Coast research facility that Belkhir came up with the idea for an automatic book-scanning device. He left Xerox in May 2001, after the company gave him an exclusive license to the emerging technology, and he founded Kirtas one month later.
Kirtas has sold more than 200 units-retailing at $139,000 or $179,000, depending on their speed-to customers around the world.
“What you can do with digitization is mind-boggling,” Belkhir says, noting that his company’s more expensive model can scan 2,400 pages of text per hour. “Our customers just take their book, place it in our machine’s cradle and push a button.”
Passion and energy
Belkhir is a passionate and energetic innovator, says Mark Klein, Kirtas’ director of operations for the past two years, who previously was a “self-employed computer geek.”
In addition, Klein says, “Lotfi is one of the most kind-hearted people I’ve ever met, with a true open-door policy. You can catch him in the hallway, his office, the parking lot, wherever, and he’ll take your questions to heart and give you a real answer.”
One story stands out for Klein and is symbolic of Belkhir’s generosity.
“We had a scanning technician who would put his finger on the corner of each page to make sure that the pages weren’t double-fed. Lotfi noticed this, put that feature into the book scan, then turned around and awarded the patent for that innovation to the scanning technician,” Klein says. “Lotfi makes this the sort of place where you can’t wait to come to work in the morning.”
Belkhir’s close friend Shameem Ahsan echoes Klein’s sentiment. Ahsan, a local business development executive for IBM Corp., and Belkhir have been friends for nearly 15 years. They met because of their mutual involvement in interfaith community activities through the Islamic Center of Rochester.
“Lotfi is driven by a fundamental belief in humanity, and it is his passion and goal to preserve old books around the globe that are currently confined to boundaries because of their fragileness,” says Ahsan, who has done some consulting on information technology for Belkhir. “So much of ancient civilization is scattered throughout the world. I truly believe that it’s Lotfi’s goal to digitize the world’s documents and bring obscure literature to readers everywhere.”
Belkhir, an avid chess player and mixed martial arts enthusiast, is always reading three books simultaneously-usually business, physics and fiction-and says he deliberately surrounds himself with energetic folks.
“When I hire people, I give a lot more weight to passion than experience,” he says. “I truly feel that we have a radically different product that is helping the world become a closer community.”
Debbie Waltzer is a Rochester-based freelance writer.
Title: CEO, Kirtas Technologies Inc.
Education: B.S. in physics, University of Algiers, 1986; M.A., 1989, and Ph.D., 1993, laser physics, SUNY Stony Brook; online M.A. in management of technology, National Technological University, 2000
Family: Wife Souad; daughters Imaan, 17; Boushra, 10; Serene, 9; Ranya, 6; and Selma, 9 months; son Raouf, 13
Languages: Fluent in English, French and Arabic
Hobbies: Running, martial arts, reading, chess, community involvement through the Islamic Center of Rochester Inc.
Quote (said with a smile): “As a parent, I try to hire self-managed kids.”
04/10/2009 (C) Rochester Business Journal