Profiles of Kodak’s progeny

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Last week I posted an overview of Kodak’s enduring legacy in the Rochester economy, particularly as reflected in firms still active in the region with some kind of Kodak connection. I found that about 8,500 Rochester-area residents currently work for one of these firms (including 1,350 still employed by Kodak). 

My list includes companies that once were part of Kodak and were spun out as independent firms; divisions that were sold to other companies; businesses founded around technology that was created at Kodak but didn’t have a natural home within the company; and firms founded by individuals whose training and experience at Kodak made their new ventures possible. In this post I profile a few of these firms, demonstrating the variety of ways a successful employer can influence the business environment.

L3Harris Technologies
Nearly 1,500 of L3Harris’ 3,500 Rochester employees are in its Space & Airborne Systems segment, the largest of Kodak’s “legacy” units. By freeing cameras from bulky and heavy glass plates, George Eastman made aerial photography possible. In the late 1890s cameras were being launched in hot air balloons and rockets. The first aerial photograph from an airplane was taken in 1909 by Wilbur Wright. 

Photo courtesy of Defense Visual Information Center

Bob Fiete, a veteran of Kodak’s Remote Sensing Division, recounted Kodak’s role in aerial photography in a presentation at Rochester Institute of Technology that was reported by Trajectory. Fiete notes that Kodak’s direct role blossomed during World War I with the invention of Kodak’s K-1 camera. The Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum reports that the camera used 15-cm (6-inch) film and had a built-in magazine. The K-24, a camera designed by Fairchild but miniaturized by Kodak, played a similar role during World War II. 

Sputnik, in addition to raising the specter of satellite weaponry, also opened the door to satellite reconnaissance. Kodak was enlisted to support the National Reconnaissance Office. The forward of a 2014 history of Kodak’s involvement begins:

Kodak’s Hawkeye plant near Driving Park Bridge

The success of the Cold War photo-reconnaissance missions during the pre-digital age of the 20th century, was dependent on the magic of photochemistry. The core of that magic—with its latent images, silver halide crystals, gelatin, acetate, and ESTAR—was located in a highly secretive film processing and camera development facility, run by Kodak, and operated behind the cover name of Bridgehead. 

The “Bridgehead” name was a reference to the Driving Park Bridge over the Genesee River adjacent to Kodak’s Hawkeye plant, the site of Kodak’s secretive photoreconnaissance program. During the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Air Force developed a reconnaissance satellite for high-altitude imagery. Kodak’s role, begun in 1954, was to develop and process special film to be used in the U2 spy plane and subsequently in the Corona satellites. 

(Another technological marvel of note was the film-return system that allowed the exposed Kodak film to be retrieved from the satellite for processing. Learn more here.)

Once the film was returned to Earth, Kodak scientists and technicians took up the task of processing and interpreting the images. Kodak’s role continued in subsequent decades, developing both the film and the cameras for the 1960s GAMBIT satellites. The 1971 HEXAGON satellite relied again on Kodak film. In 1994, Lockheed Martin contracted with Kodak to build the camera for the IKONOS satellite. 

The company’s Remote Sensing Systems operations were sold to ITT in 2004 for $725 million. The sale encompassed the transfer of about 2,000 employees. In 2011, ITT split into three firms, with the Kodak legacy business included in a new firm named ITT Exelis, then simply Exelis in 2013. Exelis was sold to Harris occurred two years later. The merger of L3 Systems and Harris was completed in 2019, creating the nation’s sixth-largest defense contractor.

While not direct descendants of the firm, the Center for Imaging Science at RIT, plus the Institute of Optics and the Goergen Institute for Data Sciences at the University of Rochester, owe much to Kodak’s pioneering work in imaging. 

OLEDWorks

In an interview with the Beacon, Kodak’s longtime chief technology officer, Terry Taber, singled out organic light-emitting diode technology as one he’d wished to retain within Kodak. Supporting his perspective, Rochester is home to several companies building products and expanding intellectual property around OLED.

What is OLED lighting?

Thomas Alva Edison patented his light bulb in 1879. His original carbonized bamboo filament was replaced by tungsten in 1910, thus completing the design of the incandescent bulb. The principle is simple: The filament is an imperfect conductor. As it resists the flow of electrons, the filament heats and glows. The heat is a wasted byproduct. This relatively inefficient technology dominated lighting for more than a century. 

Solid-state lighting will soon relegate incandescent bulbs to niche status. Solid-state devices like LED and OLED rely on inorganic and organic materials whose electrons emit photons (particles of light) when excited by an electric current. This electroluminescence converts energy into light directly rather than as a byproduct of heat. Different materials and combinations of materials emit light of varying wavelengths. Both LED and OLED lighting are dramatically more efficient than the modern descendent of Edison’s incandescent bulb.

OLED history

The first diode emitting light in the visible spectrum was developed by a researcher at General Electric in 1962 and was based on semiconductor wafers made of inorganic compounds. In the 1970s and 1980s, Kodak explored the use of organic materials for light-emitting diodes, culminating in a 1987 discovery by Kodak scientists Ching Tang and Steven VanSlyke.

Philips was the first to produce a commercialized OLED light panel. Kodak had matched this in pilot line testing but had not commercialized the technology. Kodak had commercialized the first active matrix OLED display (AMOLED), however, demonstrating its value on digital camera screens and Kodak’s wireless picture frame. 

Kodak’s financial challenges spurred the sale of many of the company’s assets in the late 2000s. Kodak’s OLED division was sold to LG for $100 million in 2009, although Kodak retained access to the intellectual property. LG then formed Global OLED Technology (GOT).

OLEDWorks was founded in 2010 by two OLED pioneers from Kodak, Michael Boroson and John Hamer, plus David Dejoy, managing partner at DeJoy, Knauf & Blood. In 2011 it licensed the former Kodak patent portfolio from GOT. By 2015 the company was able to purchase Philips’ OLED division, including both Philips intellectual property and its manufacturing facility in Aachen, Germany. The union of experts from Kodak and Philips has positioned OLEDWorks as an industry leader in OLED lighting.

Recent news from OLEDWorks includes its partnership with Audi around the use of OLED in automotive lighting. At the International Symposium for Automotive Lighting, Audi announced its OLED platform for tail lights. 

The initial group of ex-Kodakers at OLEDWorks numbered eight, of whom four remain. The staff in Rochester now includes 15 people with OLED experience from Kodak plus 10 other employees.

Two other Rochester firms are working to commercialize OLED technology.

■ Molecular Glasses was founded in 2013 by former Kodak scientist Michel Molaire. Winner of a $100,000 prize in the 2018 Luminate competition, the firm holds five U.S. patents with 15 international patents pending. The firm employs six currently.

■ Orthogonal’s founding in 2009 included a number of experienced Kodak OLED researchers. Of the current 11 employees, four came from Kodak. The company notes that its “photoresist solutions allow direct patterning of a wide range of organic electronic materials (for use in) high-resolution OLED displays and flexible display applications as well as organic sensors.”

OLED technology

LEDs are grown on semiconductor wafers coated with crystalline inorganic compounds such as gallium arsenide or gallium phosphide. By contrast, OLEDs use organic (carbon containing) materials that can be deposited in controlled layers as thin as 10-20 molecules. OLEDs can be deposited over large areas creating large, very thin, planar light emitting diodes. The overall thickness of the device is largely determined by the thickness of the substrate (e.g. glass or plastic). The substrate can be flexible, as demonstrated by LG’s curved OLED TVs. Based on organic compounds, OLEDs also have the advantage of being fully recyclable.

According to OLEDWorks, OLED can be cost competitive with LEDs at the “system level”—fewer parts are used in a fixture, and, like LED, the cost continues to come down with scale.  In the last four years, for example, efficacy has doubled while the price per panel has fallen by two-thirds. 

The OLED technology opens up new possibilities for lighting, although the technology remains more expensive and less efficient than LEDs. A partnership between OLEDWorks and Penn State is hoping to reduce manufacturing cost and significantly improve OLED’s lighting efficiency. 

Lumetrics

In 2000, High Technology of Rochester (now NextCorp) secured a $100,000 state grant to spur new startup companies based on discoveries at Rochester’s research-intensive firms that were not being commercialized. Kodak’s patent production was legendary during much of the firm’s history, contributing to Rochester’s status as having one of the nation’s highest rates of patent submissions in the nation, adjusted for population. 

Commercialization takes time, money and focus, however. Discoveries are not the same as products, as Kodak’s experience with digital imaging abundantly demonstrates. HTR’s “orphan technology” initiative was aimed at identifying discoveries emerging from the research labs of Kodak, Xerox, Delphi, Bausch & Lomb and others and pairing them with entrepreneurs who were willing and able to turn the discovery into a product or service. 

Paul Wetenhall

Not all good ideas work out as planned. In a recent email correspondence, Paul Wetenhall, who led the orphan tech effort when president of HTR, concluded that “it is theoretically attractive to commercialize corporate orphan tech but is practically very difficult,” noting that the internal reward systems in large firms don’t encourage licensing as the “possible revenues are almost always small (by Fortune 500 scale) and distant (5+ years in the future).” Wetenhall also observed that orphan tech reveals that the corporation’s investment was wasted, not a fact that managers care to announce. Finally, he reminds us that “it is difficult make commercial progress with only the IP; you also need access to the inventor and the corporation is reluctant to enable that access.” 

Although the program was a failure overall, Lumetrics has been successful. Established in 2002 at HTR, the firm licensed seven of Kodak’s patents. Lumetric’s headline OptiGauge product is based on thin-film measurement technology. The firm also benefited from an equity investment by the Trillium Group. “The University Technology Seed Fund allowed Lumetrics to develop a comprehensive business assessment and business plan, creating a solid foundation for the company,” said John Hart in a 2003 press release. Hart remains president of Lumetrics.

Today, customer sectors include medical devices, ophthalmology and glass manufacturing. Lumetrics employs 22.

Snomax

When I was growing up in suburban Chicago, snow skiing was limited to a sad hill in Northern Indiana with a heart-stopping 150-foot vertical or a couple of resorts in Southern Wisconsin (Alpine Valley, vertical drop of 388 feet and Wilmot “Mountain,” vertical drop of 190 feet). And we were always skiing on manmade snow as the phlegmatic Midwest winters hardly ever provided enough of the natural white stuff.

Thanks to Kodak technology, the reliability and texture of that manmade snow has improved, while the cost of making it has fallen. 

Wayne Palmiter, president and general manager of Snomax International, likens Snomax to the invention of the Post-it note: Searching for a new permanent adhesive, a 3M researcher found a use for one of his “failures.” Similarly, research into an “antifreeze” for agricultural crops split a naturally-occurring microbe into two components, a frost-inhibiting bacteria and one that hastened the freezing process. The antifreeze product was never commercialized. The protein that accelerated freezing was—and Snomax was born. 

In this case, Kodak didn’t invent the basic science; however, it did make it possible to bring production to scale, highlighting one of Kodak’s longstanding “core competencies” in manufacturing. Kodak acquired the Snomax innovation from Advanced Genetic Sciences Inc.

Acquired during Kodak’s investment in biotechnology in the late 1980s, Snomax became part of Genencor International, a joint venture between Cultor and Kodak. Genencor sold Snomax to York International in 1997, which was itself acquired by Johnson Controls in 2007. Along with related York businesses, Snomax is now owned by the Italian firm TechnoAlpin, a major producer of snowmaking equipment.

Although Snomax is formally headquartered in Englewood, Colo., Palmiter and the firm’s half-dozen sales reps still live in Rochester. He says total employment with the Snomax product approaches 100, although all but the sales force is contracted to other firms and is quite seasonal. 

Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon opinion editor.

7 thoughts on “Profiles of Kodak’s progeny

  1. Just goes to show the extent of technological diversity this city has been able to sustain over the long term. No doubt, we should remember, a considerable number of those ventures were as a result of the college tuition Kodak paid out helping its employees get their degrees.

  2. Really good story, Kent – I try to remind people all the time that there are still a ton of former Kodakers working in spin-offs in Rochester to this day. Now if only Kodak’s 1980’s intrapreneurial/new opportunity development program hadn’t been scuttled… who knows how many companies could have incubated out of Kodak IP.

    • Thanks, David. Hard to know what difference that would have made. Lumetrics seems to have been the only success story from the orphan tech program (which your father was involved with, I believe). While we’ve some great successes from “intrapreneurs,” leaving Kodak to start something new was a big challenge.

  3. An unflown Kodak Gambit 1 space reconnaissance optical system arrived a few weeks ago in the lobby of the Rochester Museum & Science Center’s Strasenburgh Planetarium, on long-term loan from the National Reconnaissance Office, and you can see it. In addition to the film achievement, this device illustrates skill in optics, with two large mirrors and a large, specialized lens, all figured and — key point — tested at Kodak in the 1960s. RMSC’s specialists in historical objects, exhibit fabrication and facilities management moved nimbly to receive this once-top-secret telescope. Interpretive panels are in the works, but the “silver bullet,” as the builders called it, is here now. The Planetarium lobby opens half an hour before the first show of the day, and there will be a lot of shows during the Christmas-New Year’s weeks. Check rmsc.org for the show schedule!

    Steve Fentress
    Director, RMSC Strasenburgh Planetarium

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