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CEO of nLIGHT laser company explains his vision and how art critiscism steers his ego

COURTESY: THE COLUMBIAN - NLIGHT CEO Scott Keeney was recently named Technology Executive of the Year by the Technology Association of Oregon. Keeney brings his drawing materials on long business trips and visits art  museums, and learned a valuable lesson in self criticism while taking an art class at UW.

NLIGHT CEO Scott Keeney was recently named Technology Executive of the Year by the Technology Association of Oregon. The Business Tribune asked him about the award and what gets him as excited.

"Lasers have often been called a solution looking for a problem. They're a high-tech piece of equipment that's difficult to find a broad application."

NLight started out making the lasers that boost the signal inside optic fiber communications cables.

"When we started the company, it was the communications market that allowed us to raise capital. We had this vision about these other markets for lasers, and the VCs were interested, but the markets were smaller. The technology worked well but there was so much capacity it became one of the worst downturns ever. There were 500 companies in optical components in 2000, but soon WorldCom, Nortel, Bell Labs, Lucent, were all gone."

Then came the pivot to industrial lasers, which cut and shape hard materials. There followed years of belt tightening, weathering the Great Recession and a downtown in defense contracts. But growth really picked up in 2015.

"We have our own version of Moore's Law (that computer chip speeds double every 18 months). Lasers improve by a factor of 10 every decade. Recently the technology has matured so that it can be used in a manufacturing environment. It's happening very rapidly. We've all shared the vision from day one, that the tech would improve dramatically and the cost-gain performance would improve, so we could displace other technologies. That's what's come true."

COURTESY: NLIGHT - Making laser chips is similar to making semiconductors, but nLIGHT is vertically intergrated, meaning they make every part of the chip and assemble it into a powerful array of lasers. OEMs turn them into tools for cutting different materials.

Sam

The award was renamed in honor of Sam Blackman, AWS Elemental founder and 2015 Technology Executive of the Year winner who passed away in August 2017.

"I knew Sam and I'm truly honored. I appreciated what he did, not only for growing Elemental but also the community. I believe it's critical to be involved in the community, and not just in a window dressing way."

The company started nConnect to recruit STEM professionals as mentors in Southwest Washington area schools. By maintaining and supporting a network of industry volunteers, nConnect helps students connect classroom learning with real world experiences.

"In tech we're all busy and fly around, so it takes so much more effort to stay involved in the local community. But we spend a lot of time working with local schools. Over the last 10 years, our scientists and engineers have engaged with teachers to encourage more kids to take more rigorous science and math classes, like calculus, statistics and chemistry. I'm deeply committed to that cause."

They work with Fort Vancouver High School just down the road, and look for kids who have challenges and come from families where the parents didn't go to college.

"I believe education is one of the most important social justice issues of the day."

Keeney has an MBA from Harvard. Do earning calls with Wall Street unnerve him?

"Financial metrics are the metrics of business. We went public and now I'm deeply involved with communication, with investors and Wall Street. Part of my role is to explain what we're doing and why. I get nervous on every call, but (the actor) Laurence Olivier said every time he went on stage he had stage fright. He was nervous. It's critical. If you're ever overly confident, you're going to miss something. It's critical to be self-critical and have an appropriate sense of nervousness."

Painting class

What part of his own education was especially valuable?

"I took a painting class in undergrad at the University of Washington, because I was good at drawing. I learned a lot about skills that are important to business. When you finish a work you put it up on the wall and go through a 'crit.' And you get ripped apart! The first painting I put on the wall the professor tore it to shreds. We have a tendency to take it personally, but I learned a lot how to separate my ego from an objective analysis."

So it is in the boardroom.

"It's so easy for people to get their ego tied up in a new product, a new process, a solution to an IT problem. We're all creating things, but most of the problems, many of the issues, have to do with people not working together well. The best way I found is be self-critical."

Being critical is not negative, it's positive, Keeney clarifies.

"I strive to be self-critical and in doing so it's ok to be critical. But you have to have a relationship with people first. The thing always drove me nuts in school was the 'wonderful job' false praise."

He still paints with his daughters, and now when he travels he brings a sketchpad, pencils and some watercolors. If he has any down time he'll hit a museum. It's one of the perks of global travel.

"To travel the world is tough and fantastic, there are great museums everywhere. I was in London a few months back and they had Friday night drawing sessions at the National Portrait Gallery (in Trafalgar Square). So, I brought my sketchbook and joined in. I saw great art, and it's a nice way to brush up on history."

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Scott Keeney

CEO nLIGHT

nCONNECT nconnect.org

Keeney will be recognized at the Oregon Technology Awards ceremony on April 17. Now in its 35th year, the Oregon Technology Awards celebrates excellence and achievement within the region's technology community.


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