It was at the end of November 2020 that chip company Nvidia announced that they had acquired Gothenburg-based startup OptiGOT. The deal had been completed already in April that year but was somewhat veiled in secrecy and was only made public six months later. At the time, neither sellers nor buyers wished to comment further on the deal in media and the purchase price was kept secret. However, on OptiGOT's LinkedIn page, the company's CEO, André Kelkkanen, made it clear that they were very pleased with the sale: “To use a football metaphor: Feels amazing. We join the best team in the world and get the chance to compete to win against the best competition in the world."
At the time for the acquisition, OptiGOT had grown into a cutting-edge start-up in high-performance surface-emitting semiconductor lasers, known as vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser (VCSEL). A technology that can be used in LIDAR and for high-efficiency and very fast data transmission via fiber cable. The method is groundbreaking and crucial for advanced big data testing, evaluation and analysis and made OptiGOT highly attractive to a range of big tech companies. Among those Nvidia, that since the 90s had been market-leading in computer and game graphics and now was getting established as a global player in AI and supercomputers. However, they weren’t the only ones trying to get OptiGOT’s attention.
“In 2019 and 2020, several companies showed interest in acquiring OptiGOT. One of these was Nvidia. At that point, it was really an easy choice. Nvidia is a fantastic and large international company that is doing brilliantly. They have muscles and have for some considerable time been market-leading in graphics processors for interactive graphics and in recent years, partly through acquisitions of various companies, also become leaders in AI and IT for e.g. supercomputers, autonomous machines, cloud and data centers, healthcare and life sciences, high-performance data processing, networks and self-driving vehicles,” says Anders Larsson, professor of Photonics at the Department of Microtechnology and Nanoscience, MC2, and one of four founders of OptiGOT.
Today, just over a year after the sale, the team has become part of Nvidia and has expanded to seven people, all from Chalmers, six of whom originate from the Department of Microtechnology and Nanoscience.
With roots in industrial research
MC2's lab may be regarded as the starting point as OptiGOT's journey began sometime in the mid-90s. When the research project was unbundled in 2016, OptiGOT was considered a distillate of over 20 years of VCSEL research at Chalmers. With a team consisting of eleven doctoral students and four post-docs, the research was characterized for many years by a tenacity and a focus with clear short- and long-term goals. Something that the founders themselves believe has been crucial to the company's later success. But also the many collaborations with companies all over the world that marked the research years at MC2 are believed to have prepared them well for going into business.
"Eventually we became really good at this, world leading, you might say. Since the research was applied and industrial, we started to receive requests in 2000 from various companies for help with laser design, but also with the manufacture and testing of prototypes. For many years we declined, but at the beginning of 2015 we decided to give it a chance and started delivering designs through Chalmers Ventures," explains Anders.
"So already from the beginning we were able to identify some potential customers and shape a model for how
we would sell our technology. Because of that, we didn’t need to find or create a market for our "product", which is a completely different challenge," adds Erik Haglund, former PhD student at MC2 and one of the founders of OptiGOT.
The birth of OptiGOT
The decision to test the business idea in collaboration with Chalmers Ventures in early 2015 would prove to be a good one. When the collaboration shortly after generated large orders from interested customers, it felt natural to get into business for real together. In 2016 OptiGOT saw the light of day, perhaps the biggest milestone of the journey for the four founders who, in addition to Anders and Erik, also includes Johan Gustavsson, associate professor at MC2 at Chalmers, and Chalmers Ventures. Shortly thereafter, a CEO was appointed, André Kelkkanen from Chalmers Ventures who at an early stage was able to complement the technical expertise with experience from entrepreneurship, business economics and business law. Something that Anders and Erik in retrospect are convinced of has been a major success factor in OptiGOT's progress. Two years later, the company moved into its own office, entailing the opportunity to shape an independence and an identity of their own.
"It was really cool to take part in building a startup from scratch. Just to sit down and try to come up with a good name took a while. And then everything from designing the logo and website to buying IKEA furniture for the office," says Erik.
At the same time, the business grew to such an extent that several former photonics PhD students from MC2 were able to join up and develop the company further. And soon, takeover offers began to trickle in. And the rest is history.
The journey of OptiGOT has been marked by well-founded decisions, no doubt. But there’s one crucial factor that may be difficult to control. Timing. In OptiGOT's case, the stars turned out to be aligned also on that point. In parallel with the progress of the research project and the formation of a company, the outside world seemed to go in a favorable direction.
"As we developed the research, the market for this type of laser also developed in a positive direction. From the mid-90s until the mid-00s, the market grew and was dominated by fiber optic data cables and various types of sensors such as optical data mice, for example. Since the mid-2000s, the market has grown rapidly as data centers around the world began to manage all data traffic in the cloud with fiber optic data cables, and as the laser technology began to be used increasingly for consumer electronics such as mobile phones, in terms of camera focus and facial recognition, and other types of sensors such as laser radar for self-driving vehicles," says Anders.
And there’s no sign of the market for laser technology slowing down. Quite the opposite. According to a recent report from Yole, the total market for VCSEL is projected to grow from $1.1 billion to $2.7 billion from 2020 to 2027, with a corresponding growth in data communication VCSELs from $277 million to $516 million over the same time interval.
From startup to tech giant
However, like all journeys this too entailed challenges along the way. Moving from a research environment in academia to life as an entrepreneur was a tangible transition. For some, it involved a part-time position in two places, one at Chalmers and one at OptiGOT. A delicate balancing act, from time to time. The transition also involved stepping into a new culture.
"It was a challenge for those of us who came from academia to realize and learn that the conditions for industrial activities are quite different from those that apply to academic research. It doesn’t always have to be the best, good enough will do in many cases. But it should be possible to produce at an acceptable cost and work, “come rain or shine,” explains Anders.
Going from a small to large global company is a transition, as well. As the sale to Nvidia was realized, the startup of six employees merged into an international company with 20,000 employees in over 30 countries.
"It’s mostly positive, in terms of considerably more resources and opportunities to learn things that simply weren’t possible at OptiGOT, with insight into the entire chain, from components to complete systems. At the same time, it always takes time to learn how a large organization works in regards to processes and tools," says Anders.
The saga of OptiGOT is a success story, no doubt. The journey may have been long but has been made possible by a highly dedicated and persistent research team, an early contact with industry and a continuous access to the labs at Chalmers. So, what are the most valuable lessons to be learned along the way?
"It's super important to bring people in who know how to start a company and who can manage the finances. So that time is dedicated to both dealing with technical stuff as well as customers. And it's important to have a good lawyer who can help out with contracts, in terms of how they work and how to write them. Someone who can sort out a first draft and double-check everything," says Erik.
And Anders agrees:
"Yes, it’s really important to bring in non-technical skills early on, i.e. entrepreneurship, business economics and business law. And you have to be passionate about this and be prepared to put in a lot of energy, patience and time. And you need to start "simple" in order to investigate and understand if the idea holds up. In other words, if there seems to be a demand."