Radio Cade

High-Quality Optical Filters

April 30, 2019 Hooman Banaei Season 1 Episode 30
Radio Cade
High-Quality Optical Filters
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Radio Cade
High-Quality Optical Filters
Apr 30, 2019 Season 1 Episode 30
Hooman Banaei

Optical filters are made for filtering out parts of the color spectrum that we don’t need, or that are even harmful. Migraines, for instance, are often caused by light from a particular part of the spectrum.  Hooman Banei has invented a way to manufacture high-quality optical filters at scale for a reasonable cost.  As a child growing up in Iran, Hooman worked in his father's concrete manufacturing company, but he wanted to be an astronomer.  “My father and I had a debate about what I should do my life,” and Hooman decided to go into science before returning to manufacturing.   


Show Notes Transcript

Optical filters are made for filtering out parts of the color spectrum that we don’t need, or that are even harmful. Migraines, for instance, are often caused by light from a particular part of the spectrum.  Hooman Banei has invented a way to manufacture high-quality optical filters at scale for a reasonable cost.  As a child growing up in Iran, Hooman worked in his father's concrete manufacturing company, but he wanted to be an astronomer.  “My father and I had a debate about what I should do my life,” and Hooman decided to go into science before returning to manufacturing.   


Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade a podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade , who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We'll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we'll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work, and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Richard Miles:

Some people have no filters, but our guest today has lots of filters, optical filters. So we're very pleased to have this morning, the 2015 winner of the Cade Prize, Hooman Banei. Welcome to the show, Hooman.

Hooman Banei:

Thank you very much Richard.

Richard Miles:

So ever since winning the Cade Prize in 2015, you've been living a life of wealth and fame, right? Paparazzi on your doorstep. I think those are your Bentley out in the parking lot, right?

Hooman Banei:

Well, you may think so. That's, that's one of the myths about entrepreneurship. Well, it takes a couple of decades to get there.

Richard Miles:

Okay. So 20 years now, it'd be like bill Gates, right? We won't even be able to get ahold of you . Hooman, let's start out by explaining for a guest, what exactly your technology is, what you invented, what optical filters are basically for those who don't know what they are, why they're necessary and what are some of the applications of optical filters.

Hooman Banei:

Sure. Yeah. Thank you very much for the opportunity. So, we deal with all kinds of filters in our daily lives. You know, anything from coffee filter to water filter, to air filter. So optical filters are also similarly made for filtering out parts of the color spectrum of light that we don't necessarily need for particular applications. I can give you examples. Let's say people who suffer from migraine headache about 80% of them are sensitive to light. And it turns out that the sensitivity is only two very, very particular colors of light. So if you can only filter out those two particular colors without touching the rest of the spectrum, you can essentially have say, eyewear, that is almost a hundred percent transparent, but at the same time, it gets rid of the problematic ranges of the spectrum. So these are many, many applications or applications for n ext g eneration smartwatches, where t hey're trying to bring really high performance and very high end and sensitive diagnostic methods to portable smart watch type of applications to bring some of the currently lab based test platforms into our portable devices. So these are also heavily based on filtering spectral signatures of let's say a glucose in our blood. There are many other things that they try to detect, and it takes a certain type of optical filter to focus on that a spectral signature.

Richard Miles:

So let's go to that example of the migraine. That's, that's fascinating by the way. So I imagine your research , your work also depends in on researchers who are studying for people with certain pathologies, like migraines, figuring out things like, okay, they are sensitive to these particular parts of the spectrum, or do you do that research as well?

Hooman Banei:

Luckily we don't do that. We're heavily relying on existing knowledge and multiple fields of science and technology, where is being proven that the ideal solution requires some type of optical filtering. And we just go ahead and use our technology and make the right type of filter for that.

Richard Miles:

Okay. And so a smartphone is one clear example, right? Let's say someone is bothered by a certain type of light coming through the smart p hone. Is this something that would be integrated into the glass itself a t the manufacturing process of the smartphone? Or is t his something that goes on later, like an add-on?

Hooman Banei:

So , uh , for that particular application you're right. There's some harmful blue light that comes off of most modern digital screens and that can be filtered out with a highly selective optical filter. So it can be used in multiple ways. It can go directly into the configuration, into the structure of the phone. It can be an after- market screen cover. It can go into eyewear that serves the same purpose, but it's not on your phone, it's on your eyes essentially. So you can filter that same lights regardless of where it comes from.

Richard Miles:

So Hooman, the process that you invented in 2015, if I remember correctly, it's has certain manufacturing advantages, right? It's very thin, it's lightweight and there's a cost advantage as well. Like all the sort of this sweet spot, because as you said, the concept of filtering optical things has been around. It's just, how do you actually do that in a given product, right?

Hooman Banei:

Precisely. Yeah. The concept of thin film , optical filtering, or highly selective optical filtering that has been around for decades and traditional technology for manufacturing. These filters has also been around for about 30, 40 years and has been evolving and improving over time incrementally. And at this point it has hit a plateau in terms of scalability of it at low cost. Uh, when I was looking at the gaps in our optics market, given some experience that I had running vacuum chambers that are typically used for optical filter manufacturing, and also knowing a lot about how optical fibers are made for telecommunication, that was my PhD background. So I saw a connection between the two, one had huge scalability at low costs . I mean, we're all familiar with what optical fibers have done to global internet network and all high-speed communication. So extremely scalable at low costs . But at the same time, I was familiar with the challenges and features of vacuum coating can the traditional way of making filters. So I just saw a connection. I saw a way that we could perhaps marry these two industries with the hope that the r esults becomes a new industry that brings the same level of performance from traditional filters to the same level of, or at least similar level of scalability at low c osts that optical fibers offer. So that was how the idea was born. And w e're essentially translating the whole process of making optical fibers from circular geometry to linear geometry. T he, t he core concept is fairly simple. When y ou a re making optical fibers, the thread of glass that guides lights across the oceans, you start with a larger scale material, and then you warm it up and pull it down into a threat. In our case, we start with a m ulti-layer slab and then we pull it down thermally into a m ulti-layer sheet o r a fill.

Richard Miles:

In the same year that you won the Cade prize. You started a company, right? Everix, how's that going in ? And tell us a little bit about the experience of your you're an academic, still work and academic stepping into the business world as an academic.

Hooman Banei:

I graduated mid 2013 and in my storage shed, I was developing this concept until late 2014, where I was really convinced that the technology is worth turning it into a business. And that was the point where I officially started Everix in January, 2015. And basically you started branding this to the relevant market . So since then the company has gone through a few ups and downs, a couple of small recessions, if you will, but we've just soldier through all the difficulties and we've made the technology work. And as we speak, the largest distributor of optical components in the word actually has about 40 different part numbers of our products on their catalog. So this is a company that's almost the Amazon of optical components. So we're gaining some credibility, some recognition through that and directly selling to some of the largest companies on the face of earth that you can imagine.

Richard Miles:

That's very exciting. I imagine this takes a fair amount of time though, right? Because even though you're not going after the retail market at this point, right? You're talking to manufacturers too , but still that's a fair amount of time in terms, I imagine meetings and making presentations and sort of justifying the finances is it a struggle finding the balance between continuing to do research and, or you're working full-time in the company now?

Hooman Banei:

Oh, I was never doing both. You know, I finished my PhD, clean -cut then I started a business, no more academic work. So people have different opinions and I respect that. But in my personal opinion, you can't be good at both, right ? Running your startup alone or running a startup alone takes way more than full-time involvement.

Richard Miles:

Let's explore that little bit, because it's somewhat typical, at least in the , the experience that I've seen in an idea starts in a laboratory. It's an academic idea. It's done by a researcher and then it becomes commercialized. What have you had to learn, I guess, about the business world entrepreneurial world that you didn't know as an academic, how are those two worlds different? Because a lot of, as you probably know, from e xperience, a lot of those people don't make that transition, right? Because they come i n the business side of it with certain assumptions that they've learned as an academic, they don't apply. We'll give you an example. One of our board members, who's also been a Cade Prize judge, and he's now a consultant. He said his first tasks when he deals with academics is teach them to fall out of love with t heir idea and what he meant by that was essentially, if you're fixated on the idea, it's harder to see the business applications o r the c osts and the production factors, because the idea is so beautiful, does that resonate with you at all?

Hooman Banei:

Oh , 100% there actually multiple aspects to this one is that yes. When you're so focused on the scientific exploration and especially when the incentive in most academic institutions is production of research papers, which I totally respect, you know, that's , that's, that's a great cost to have. Uh , but when that becomes the main incentive, people go out of their ways to produce really good research papers. And well , I've gone through that process a few times to get my PhD, right? So I exactly know what you do to make a successful research paper. You may cop a case by bringing the right references to the introduction of your paper, trying to convince the audience that this is a huge problem. And my solution is the unique solution to it. But that's the case that we, as the researcher make to get the papers published in the real world, things are different people look at their options. People look at the alternatives that they have their real measures of pain points or problems that we're trying to solve. And there are times that a very cool technologies, it just doesn't have a problem to solve. You know, it might be a really cool technology, but just doesn't have a problem solve . Or the problem that we're imagining is really not as significant, or it has some free or lower cost or easier or faster solutions.

Richard Miles:

There might be other solutions that aren't as elegant, but they're cheaper and easier to get.

Hooman Banei:

So in my personal journey, the way to get out of that mindset was I would say, multifaceted. One was that I came from an entrepreneurial family. So I was very familiar with ups and downs of entrepreneurship, running a business and what it takes to create real value. And on top of that, while I was doing my PhD, I took most of my elective courses in the business school. And I was spending a decent amount of time with people of the business school and industrial engineering management, trying to equip myself with this entrepreneurial journey. So it's one thing that you come up with a brilliant idea. And then all of a sudden you decide to turn it into a business. But in my case, I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I just didn't know which idea on, so while I was going through the PhD, I was training myself on the entrepreneurial side while searching for the right idea. My own PhD dissertation is actually a good example where the idea was really amazing in terms of the scientific appeal of it, making solar fabrics, let's say your entire backpack is generating electricity, but when i t came to the business side of it, I did very in-depth business analysis and business v isibility analysis. And I realized that as much as I love that idea, as, as a technology, it just won't make a good business. So that's why I almost didn't even start turning that into a business. I mean, we had some business competitions, but nothing beyond t hat.

Richard Miles:

So Hooman, you're already a little bit unusual in that you had this foresight of a business career or an entrepreneurship career, or even before, or as you were doing the academic side, which it seems like a lot of academics stumble upon an idea and like, Oh my gosh, maybe there's a business here. And they tried to transition from a very different world. You said your family had a entrepreneurial background. Let's talk a little bit about that. Were your parents in the business world, or what did they do for a living?

Hooman Banei:

Sure. Yeah. My father actually started a manufacturing company maybe about 35 years ago, focused on manufacturing equipment for various steps of processing concrete from concrete production to mixing to transportation, pumping, cooling, pressing. So you name it, anything that had to do with concrete. That's what our family business was doing. And obviously it all started super small. I mean, initially it was a service business and then gradually turned into partnership with other major manufacturers and gradually to the sole manufacturer . So at some point we had 500 manufacturing employees. So I had the luxury of witnessing the scaling of a business too .

Richard Miles:

So was this when you were a child? I mean, did you see this as a young kid?

Hooman Banei:

That was a part of my day to day life.

Richard Miles:

Interesting. Okay. What were you like as a kid or as a student? Did you know then you wanted to do something business related in grade score or were you pulled to science?

Hooman Banei:

Well, I can tell you that at a point I was so serious about doing professional astronomy. So I touched on many, many different topics, a little at a time trying to explore what really resonates with me. And there was a time that I was actually resisting to be involved in the business. And I was so into the science side of word, but then over time I realized that all right, as much as I really liked science, I don't think I'm a theoretician. Let's say I was more interested on the applied side of science. That's how I got into optics and photonics, because that was one of the emerging and rapidly growing fields of science and engineering and interfacing between multiple disciplines of material science, electrical, optical physics. And once I entered optics, I realized that there is a lot of ways of serving the world and basically improving life quality for people through managing light, one way or another.

Richard Miles:

Wow, Hooman, you had a really well thought out plan I got to say, I didn't figure what I want to do in my life until about two years ago. Did your parents, were they encouraging you to go into the family business? Was that sort of their dream for you? Or did they just say you figure it out?

Hooman Banei:

It certainly was. Yes. There was a point where my father and I actually had a debate around what I should do with my life. And he certainly wanted me to continue the legacy of the family business. But luckily enough, my brother did that and set me free to do what I liked to do.

Richard Miles:

So younger brother or older brother?

Hooman Banei:

Younger.

Richard Miles:

Younger. Okay. Where did you grow up Hooman?

Hooman Banei:

I grew up in Iran and I came to the U.S. about 11 years ago,

Richard Miles:

11 years ago. So the family business, was it Iran or was it in the U.S.?

Hooman Banei:

It was in Iran and we're serving immediately market sometimes in the European market. So we're doing business internationally and most of our partners were Europeans.

Richard Miles:

So your parents were still in Iran or are they in the U.S.?

Hooman Banei:

My parents are actually U.S. citizens now and they leave right here in Gainesville.

Richard Miles:

Oh Okay. So do they come directly to Gainesville from Iran or where did they end up?

Hooman Banei:

They came to Orlando because at the time I was in Orlando, but then my sister started at UF. So that brought them all to Gainesville.

Richard Miles:

Interesting. Okay. That must have been an interesting transition in its own, right. I mean it's a huge, obviously cultural difference, but political, economic. I mean the business world is not scary at all then. Right?

Hooman Banei:

Not at all. I mean, the desire to take risks, I guess, is one of the key things for an entrepreneur to be successful. I mean, I'm not successful by any measures yet. We're just on track. Maybe, maybe not. W e'll see what happens in a few years, but I think being capable of taking the largest risks possible, that's very important. And maybe that's one of the reasons why people in academia or a little bit hesitant of making that full transition, because being on a stable paycheck is not necessarily a bad thing, but in order to make a good business, I really believe that it 's, you need to have at least one full-time employee and that is nobody other than the entrepreneur, the founder of it, and being an immigrant that has been another way for me to build some more thi ck sk in.

Richard Miles:

I know you've taken part in the Cade Prize competition. I imagine you probably taking part in other competitions or so on. What are the best lessons you have learned from other entrepreneurs, either in Florida or elsewhere, if anyone stood out on the business side, giving you mentorship about what to do or what not to do?

Hooman Banei:

Um , my main mentors have been people that I picked as my business advisors and they were still involved in my business and they've been entrepreneurs their entire life. So they were, my role

Richard Miles:

Is this at University of Central Florida in Orlando?

Hooman Banei:

Not really, there are coming from our industry. These are purely entrepreneurial, purely industrial already in the industry. So when I reached out to them and I invited them to join Everix, so they already had decades of industry experience.

Richard Miles:

Hooman, we offer every guests the opportunity to become the wise mentor to others, including some of our listeners who I imagine are looking for advice. Similar situations if you met you 10 years ago, right? What are some of the things that you would say particularly to someone, an academic, not necessarily, but someone in academia who wants to break out, start their own business, what sort of things that you would tell them to consider things to do not to do that sort of thing based on your experience?

Hooman Banei:

I would say a high level thoughts to share is that once you step outside of your comfort zone, well, the beauties of the word just become apparent to us . So it's very tempting to stay in the comfort zone. We all go through multiple years of doing research in labs and writing papers and publication and all that. And we get so used to it. It really becomes a little difficult to break away from it. I have full respect for academic research. It's absolutely necessary for the community, but eventually at some point we need people who can break away from that and take your snapshot of the technology and turn it into business products that can go not only to research publications, but also in the hands of people and improving their lives. So I think for that to happen, we need to be prepared to step out of that comfort zone. And I would say it's challenging. It's certainly not an easy thing to do, but it's so rewarding at the same time. So all we need to do is just soldier through the initial phase. And then you get so used to it. You enjoy that. You never want to leave at them , go back to the comfort zone.

Richard Miles:

So if a young academic comes and says, should I quit my job? You'll say, yes, absolutely. Jump!

Hooman Banei:

I would certainly be cautious about taking that advice. And I would probably look at the individual's situation. What business idea they have. Does it make sense to break away right away? Or do we need to have a transition period? And if they don't have any ideas, they just want to be entrepreneurs. Then I have ideas that you don't necessarily need to do research for a living because that really takes your highest quality time and energy. And by the time you're done with your day job, you probably don't have enough energy and time left to do quality work on your dreams. Right ? So I have ideas on how you can make money, easier ways on the side, just to create some revenue stream and then in parallel or focusing on your dream, why that money generator is running in the background. I mean, a lot of scientists don't like to have an Amazon shop, but I think that's one way of generating revenue. We just need to think out of the box and consider options, right?

Richard Miles:

Yeah. I heard somebody once saying, you know, being a risk taker doesn't mean being suicidal, right? So you're still taking calculated risks and risks that you think are going to pay off. You're not simply saying, well, you know, I'm going to jump off this bridge and see what happens. You're , you're making educated guests. Uh , it sounds like that's sort of the, I imagine when you decided to start ever X , you were fairly confident in the, in the technology. At that point, you thought this is probably going to pay off you weren't just simply walking out the door and like hoping for the best.

Hooman Banei:

Exactly the decision to start. Every, like you said was , uh , about one and a half years after I started testing the idea and more than testing, the technical idea was actually testing the market. I traveled before 2015, several times to several trade shows to poking to several markets that I was thinking that they would be a candidate markets for this technology, basically, just to see if anybody cares about t his solution, assuming that the technology works and that technical background also helps in that you can have educated guesses and you will probably be right at the end, whether or not the technology works because you've had some prior experience of turning ideas from nothing to a working technology. So I had some good guesses whether or not this would be physical technically.

Richard Miles:

Then again, another way in which you differ from an academic, because usually the instinct from the academic side that I've seen that turned into entrepreneurs is their initial instinct. Cause they want to take the technology to the next level, right? And then the market research, they figure will take care of itself, but it sounds like you, instead of doing that said, I need to see, like you said, test the market, see if anyone even cares about the core idea before I go to the next level.

Hooman Banei:

Exactly. And I think that's something that the entire , uh , lean startup concept is trying to fix teaching people that well, you know, the idea is just one part out of multiple parts of the value proposition b lock on your business model canvas that has nine segments in it, right? So our idea contributes to a very small portion of the entire business picture and the business w on't work without all pieces together. So it plays a very central role. The rest of it will fall apart without value proposition, but it's not the only one.

Richard Miles:

Hooman, this has been a great discussion and really value the advice that you've dispensed. And I'm looking forward to the Radio Cade episode in 2040, whenever Everix is a multi-billion dollar worldwide global concern. And, you know, we'll get five minutes of your time at that point, but thank you.

Hooman Banei:

It's alway's my pleasure, Cade has been an amazing part of my life and my journey, and he has been so influential. Uh, I'll be always happy to help the audience.

Richard Miles:

Thank you very much, Hooman.

Hooman Banei:

Thank you.

Richard Miles:

This is Richard Miles

Outro:

Radio Cade would like to thank the following people for their help and support Liz Gist of the Cade Museum for coordinating and vendor interviews. Bob McPeak of Heartwood Soundstage in downtown Gainesville, Florida for recording, editing and production of the podcasts and music theme. Tracy Collins for the composition and performance of the Radio Cade theme song, featuring violinist, Jacob Lawson and special thanks to the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida.