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 November 19, 1999

Picosecond in ‘lead pack’ with its pulse generator

BOULDER – In the never-ending race to create electronic components that can send larger chunks of data, Picosecond Pulse Labs is neck and neck with some pretty impressive competitors.

“We’re in the lead pack,´ said Scott Andrews, 33, the company’s new chief executive officer.

The Boulder-based electronics manufacturer – once a supplier only to government and research laboratories – never intended to compete within the telecom industry. But thumb-sized accessories for the company’s main product – pulse generators – have now become a stand-alone item that telecom giants, such as Nortel and Lucent Technologies, are demanding in large volumes. The components are sold all over the world – especially to Japan, Europe and the United States.

“We knew it was going to happen,´ said Andrews. “It was just a question as to whether we were going to participate.”

The uncertainty came from Scott’s father, Jim Andrews, 57, the company’s chief technology officer. Andrews, an engineer formerly employed by the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute for Standards and Technology), founded the company 18 year ago as a “commercially-viable hobby” and was more interested in scientific research than the management aspects of the company.

For the first 15 years, Picosecond was stable and profitable. It employed 10 to 12 people, and its customers used the instrument to test nuclear weapons and radar systems or to perform research and development work on semi-conductors.

But the company also sold a small number of pulse generators – electronic instruments that continually emit electrical pulses – to the telecom industry. It used the equipment to develop fiber-optic transmission systems capable of delivering large chunks of data quickly.

“What separates our (pulse generators) from the rest is that they have extremely fast rise times,´ said Martin Van Pelt, the company’s vice president and chief engineer.

Fast indeed. Pulses are fired at 10 to the minus 12 seconds, or around a trillionth of a second.

“Our products in many cases have the broadest bandwidth in the world and that’s very attractive,” Andrews said. He explains that the broader bandwidth allows data to be transmitted in larger chunks and at faster speeds.

It is the capability of Picosecond’s coaxial components to handle those higher speeds that got the attention of communications equipment manufacturers such as Lucent Technologies and Cisco Systems. Soon engineers at those companies and others were designing Picosecond’s components into their high data rate fiber-optic systems. Then orders for the components began to soar.

The equipment manufacturers, in turn, sell their products to long-distance and Internet carriers such as Qwest Communications, Global Crossing and Sprint, which use the equipment in fiber-optic networks that stretch around the world.

To picture how Picosecond’s coaxial connectors are used, imagine calling New York from Boulder. A voice travels as an electrical signal from copper lines to a box in the neighborhood, where it is converted to a digital signal and then travels to a central office. The digital signal is combined with other signals and, at some point, is converted to light, so that it can be combined with many other signals. In effect, this results in one fiber being able to handle many calls. At the other end, the light is received and re-amplified back to an electrical signal.

At different points during the transmission, the signal is amplified and re-transmitted. And it is at those points, as well as at the original transmitting stations, and at locations where the signal is converted from electricity to light, that Picosecond’s components are used.

Pulse generators cost between $5,000 and $25,000 each and the coaxial components run from $50 to $1,500. But whereas customers may only order one or two pulse generators at a time, telecom customers order thousands of coaxial components.

Picosecond’s accelerated growth began roughly three years ago, when the company’s revenues increased 30 to 40 percent. The pace picked up last year when revenues increased more than 100 percent from the previous year. The company now has 20 employees and projects hiring 30 to 40 more by next summer.

While pulse generator sales have grown steadily at about 5 to 10 percent per year, sales of the instruments now only total about 10 percent of the company’s overall sales. And that is expected to drop to 5 percent next year.

Since the addition this year of Scott Andrews, a former 20th Century Fox international marketing executive with extensive experience in leading large organizations, the senior Andrews has been relieved of managerial duties.

“What he enjoys is thinking about technology and where it’s going,´ said Scott Andrews. “Now he has an opportunity to do that again. It’s a return to his roots. It gives him a chance to be creative again.”

Meanwhile, Scott Andrews is aggressively pursuing expansion. As in all races, when a record is set, competitors try to break it. Right now the telecom industry can transmit 10 gigabytes of information per second across trunk lines. Electronic manufacturers such as Hewlett Packard have joined the race to create equipment that can transmit 40 gigabytes.

“In terms of frequency performance and speed, we’re developing technologies for the next generation of telecom systems,” Andrews said.

Also to keep pace with competitors, Picosecond continues to push technology barriers by striving to manufacture quality parts that are smaller, cheaper and highly reproducible for mass volume.

It is uncertain who will win the 40-gigabyte race. But for companies such as Picosecond, there will be many finish lines to cross, as the industry continually pushes the technology to allow for faster and larger transmittal of data.

“The excitement comes in building a new organization and impacting people’s lives through technology,” Andrews said. “The things we do are a small part in a very large revolution. It’s sort of a religious feeling. You have a good feeling about being a contributor to the growth of society.”

BOULDER – In the never-ending race to create electronic components that can send larger chunks of data, Picosecond Pulse Labs is neck and neck with some pretty impressive competitors.

“We’re in the lead pack,´ said Scott Andrews, 33, the company’s new chief executive officer.

The Boulder-based electronics manufacturer – once a supplier only to government and research laboratories – never intended to compete within the telecom industry. But thumb-sized accessories for the company’s main product – pulse generators – have now become a stand-alone item that telecom giants, such as Nortel and Lucent Technologies, are demanding in large volumes. The components are…

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