Home / Special Section / Rochester is well-populated with photonics firms, and here are the stories of three

Rochester is well-populated with photonics firms, and here are the stories of three

The Rochester area is home to an array of optics and photonics firms. Some are large and some tiny, but each contributes to the region’s expertise in the industry. Below are a trio of such firms.

Ariel Optics Inc.

Serving a diverse number of markets has helped Ariel Optics Inc. succeed.

“We have never been dependent on one industry and that has served us well,” President Frederick Koch said.

Ariel Optics manufactures optical flat components, including ultra-precision prisms and wedge prisms.

The firm is gearing up for growth with plans to increase the size of the Ontario, Wayne County-based firm by moving another business there, Koch said.

The space will accommodate the staff and equipment of Planar Optics Inc., a Webster-based optical instrument and lens manufacturer run by Koch’s father, Horst Koch.

The elder Koch, who started Planar Optics in the late 1960s, is ready to step back from the business, and his son will take over operations. The move makes sense because it combines the capabilities of both firms under one roof, Frederick Koch said.

The changes will double Ariel Optics in terms of employees and space, he adds. The business currently has seven workers at its 7,000-square-foot building.

Ariel Optics is also better located for the type of metrology equipment Planar Optics uses, Frederick Koch said. Planar Optics’ current location on Hard Road has become a largely commercial corridor with a lot of traffic.
Frederick Koch started Ariel Optics in 1990 after finishing school and working at Planar Optics for 15 years as an optical technician/engineer.

The company’s components can be found in telescopes used by organizations such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and its components are also used in communication satellites.

Its products are used in research and development and defense, aerospace, medical and consumer applications.

Customers range from manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin Corp. to universities, including the University of Rochester.

Ariel Optics’ customers are largely in the United States, although the business has done work for firms in France, South America and the United Kingdom, as well as for the University of Mexico.

The Rochester area is a good spot for optics companies, Koch said. Ariel Optics’ location near some of its suppliers allows for a quick turnaround for orders.

The company prides itself on customer service, he said. Ariel Optics’ sales and engineering teams work together to evaluate projects. The firm’s management and tracking of a project includes weekly progress updates for clients.

Moving forward, Koch sees opportunities from the services Planar Optics provides. There could also be more work from the federal government in the military arena.

“There are a lot of opportunities for growth,” Koch said.
—Andrea Deckert

Moondog Optics

It can be said that the more know-how a company has, the more sought-after they are.

That is true for Fairport-based Moondog Optics Inc., an optical design firm that marks its 10th year in business this year.

“I’ve worked on very, very high-end systems that cost thousands of dollars, and I’ve worked on systems that cost a dollar,” said Scott Cahall, president, founder and optical designer. “And you think, well this must be so much easier, but it’s really not; it’s just a different kind of challenge.”

For the first four years Cahall ran the operation alone. The company now employs 10 people, including six who work directly with Moondog Optics and four who work for Moondog Labs, the firm’s sister company. All employees generally work for both companies based on the nature of the project.

“There (are) so few companies and individuals out there in North America that have experience designing plastic optics that we look pretty unique,” Cahall said. “I think we’re the top lens design group for plastic optics in the country.”

Moondog Labs was created a few years ago so the company could make its own products. It now has 19 product lines ranging from mobile projectors to iPhone attachments for filmmakers.

Employees are generally former staffers from Eastman Kodak Co.’s optical design group. Moondog Optics focuses on mobile imaging, photography, motion capture, projection systems and displays.

“As an engineer or a designer, (Kodak’s) like the dream because you’re in an environment where you’re surrounded by people who have been designing really cool products for decades,” Cahall said. “It was a pretty welcoming environment to be in; I learned a lot.”

Less than 10 percent of the firm’s customers are based in Rochester; most are spread out across the country and abroad.

Rochester is a great place for the company to be, but optical designers are hard to come by, which makes the team at Moondog Optics rare and sought after.

“We’re really fortunate here we’re surrounded by a lot of people with a lot of great optics experience,” Cahall said.

“Unfortunately for what we do, because we’re designers, there’s a really small subset of all those optical people who are actually designers, and then an even smaller set that know about plastics and high-volume consumer products.”

This year Cahall and his team plan to offer optical testing services. They have the know-how and equipment in-house but have not yet explored the testing idea.

“Very few places offer the kind of testing services that we could provide, so that’s one area that we’re thinking of working on,” Cahall said.

The optics industry continues to surge ahead. The number of lenses in a variety of products continues to grow.

“In 2007, there were some decent cameras out there, but I don’t think most people in the industry really appreciated how good they would get,” Cahall said.
—Kerry Feltner

Oren Sage Technology

Not long ago, a friend and entrepreneurship expert gave a test to David Berg, the founder of Oren Sage Technology LLC, to see if he had potential as an entrepreneur.

“For me, it was conclusively not,” Berg said.

He started the firm as a one-man shop 11 years ago, and it has remained a solo operation.

“If I were to hire one person, I’d hire a boss who would find me interesting work,” he said.

Berg, 60, went out on his own after decades of experience at other companies, including, most recently, 13 years at Melles Griot Inc. That grounding, he said, has been essential to his success as a solo operator, designing optical systems for measurement in precision manufacturing.

He is also a teacher at Monroe Community College and speaks with students in mind when he says his work at Oren Sage is no way to start a career.

“The reason this works is I had worked 25 years for other people before I started,” he said. During that time he learned from others and got to work on a wide variety of projects. “That’s a very important part of becoming qualified.”

Now his work involves creating custom designs that help advanced manufacturers make the precision measurements they need for their products.

“I enjoy seeing a new problem and breaking it into pieces that fit with my prior experience, and then if there’s a gap, learning something new to fill that gap,” he said.

In one case, he was asked to design a system to illuminate plankton that went through a device to measure their size and record their images. To get a good picture, they needed a microscopic light source and turned to Berg to solve the problem.

Running a business, however, has its challenges given that projects do not arrive at a steady pace.

“Any small business is a Brownian motion problem,” he said, referring to a principle of physics involving the erratic motion of particles suspended in liquid.

“Everyone seems to decide they have money to spend at the same time,” he noted.

Then there is the challenge of slow periods. He has learned to use that time to learn new software and programs for his optical design work.

Berg is also committed to teaching the next generation of optics and photonics workers, having taught previously at the University of Rochester and now at MCC’s optical technology program.

“I see it not as a job but a calling,” he said.

Not only is he sharing his decades of experience in optics, he recognizes the importance of the industry to Rochester’s future.

MCC’s program is “a giant, huge, important, very big deal in Rochester,” he said.

Graduates are in high demand, not just in the Rochester area but around the country. Continuing to provide trained workers to high-end manufacturers is the future of this area, he predicted.

Berg’s commitment to Rochester extends in an odd way even to his company name.

Long before going out on his own, he had determined David Berg was too common a name to use for a company.

During a walk in Mount Hope Cemetery, he found an obelisk bearing the name “Oren Sage.” He liked the initials O.S. because they were the same initials as the Optical Society (of America.)

He subsequently found out the company’s namesake had been a wealthy businessman in the mid-1800s who raised money for UR and donated land for the Lake Avenue Baptist Church.

“It turned out he was a very good guy,” he said.
—Anne Saunders

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