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April 11, 2021

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nLIGHT co-founder took circuitous path to success in laser tech

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
3 Photos
Mark DeVito, vice president of device engineering at nLIGHT, pauses for a photo outside the firm’s Vancouver office. DeVito helps steer the technology that has helped make nLIGHT a valuable, publicly traded company.
Mark DeVito, vice president of device engineering at nLIGHT, pauses for a photo outside the firm’s Vancouver office. DeVito helps steer the technology that has helped make nLIGHT a valuable, publicly traded company. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Looking back, Mark DeVito may have once been the world’s most overqualified cashier and dishwasher.

In 1981, DeVito was 23 years old with a new master’s degree in electronic science under his arm. Yet he could not find work at the region’s tech companies.

“I just wanted to work at an Intel or a National Semiconductor,” said DeVito, a lifelong Portland resident. “But then Mount St. Helens blew and all those companies were no longer hiring. So I spent seven months working at Pizza Hut during the day, Plaid Pantry at night, while trying to find a job in the area.”

DeVito recounted this last week while sitting in a much different place: the second-floor conference room at nLIGHT, the Vancouver laser manufacturer he co-founded at the start of the millennium.

nLIGHT went public last month, jolting in value and gaining market share in a burgeoning industry. The first sales of company stock raised about $100 million and established the firm’s value at more than $1 billion.

The firm makes semiconductor lasers powerful enough to cut and weld. Their power can be harnessed for jobs such as precision manufacturing of electronics or helping U.S. aircraft shoot down hostile projectiles.

While industry experts say global fiber laser sales are expected to climb about 16 percent every year, to $4.2 billion in 2020, nLIGHT last week reported that its quarterly revenues in the winter climbed 42 percent over the year.

DeVito is now nearing 60 years old, with a full crop of brown hair. He speaks in a deliberate monotone, but it amps up when talk turns to his life’s work.

“I’ve got five grandkids, I love playing with them, but they don’t make me feel young,” he said. “When I come to work, and I work with the teams here and figure out how to make lasers better, I feel young.”

How it all started

It was only after handing in his Pizza Hut and Plaid Pantry uniforms that he could go learn the technology to turn photons into electrons. So he scoured the classified ads and found an engineering job in San Jose, Calif.

At the time, the technology — called Metal Organic Chemical Vapor Deposition — was mainly used to make night vision equipment for the military.

“They had leading-edge technology down there that I got to work on that is critical for this industry today,” he said.

After three years at that job, DeVito applied his knowledge to a startup called SDL Inc. Like a sort of precursor to nLIGHT, that company made semiconductor lasers and went public in 1995. He did not make a fortune, he said, but he did profit enough to move back to Portland and spend a few years being solely an entrepreneur.

“I think I ended up netting a few hundred K,” he said. “I used that to start my own businesses.”

nLIGHT’s formation would come a few years later, when DeVito’s path collided with Scott Karlsen, today an optical engineer at nLIGHT, and CEO Scott Keeney.

Each one in the trio had a specialty. DeVito could spark the laser, Karlsen could guide it, and Keeney, a Harvard Business School alumnus, could orchestrate those into an emergent technology company.

“We were a team from Day 1,” Keeney said. “It took those different skill sets.”

nLIGHT’s story from there is one of trial, error and patience, Keeney said. It formed in 2000 within the telecommunications industry, which collapsed shortly after. Industrial applications for lasers worked in theory, but Keeney said those ideas usually didn’t go over well with venture capital investors.

“We had a vision it would go beyond telecom,” he said. “And I’ll never forget a VC laughed at me and said lasers would never be used for these kinds of applications.”

Enough investors did come aboard, and DeVito would help forge new and improved laser technology for nearly two decades. DeVito said they took on difficult contracts to build a reputation. Those contracts came from commercial enterprises and the defense sector.

Today, nLIGHT employs more than 1,000 people around the world, including 500 in the Vancouver-Portland metropolitan area. New products will be unveiled this year in the hope of driving even more sales. The company will also work to convince more companies to consider upgrading old processes to laser technology.

“Doing what we do and pushing new markets is just inherently risky and really hard,” said Keeney. “There is no smooth sailing. Full stop.”

DeVito’s monotone voice becomes alive when he hears that.

“I feel like I have more energy than ever,” he said. “I may be turning 60 this year, but I feel like I’m 22.”

Good thing he has the job he has always wanted.

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