LIGHTING THE WAY Inventor Joseph Lindmayer, who built the solar energy company Solarex, has turned his attention to photons, the building blocks of light. One goal: lightning-fast computers.


Talk about good timing.

Joseph Lindmayer bailed out of Communications Satellite Corp. to start Solarex Corp., a solar energy company, just months before the United States was hit with an oil embargo by Middle East power brokers. The 1973 embargo put the country face-to-face with its first major energy crisis in modern history.

As oil prices skyrocketed and snaking gasoline lines became a nightly staple on the evening news, a suddenly energy-conscious America started taking a second look at alternative fuel sources, including solar energy.

"Timing is everything, and our timing couldn't have been more perfect," says Dr. Lindmayer, who started Solarex on a shoestring budget of $200,000.

As one of the few companies on the politically correct side of the energy problem, Solarex flourished throughout the '70s, attracting the attention of Congress, Wall Street and a bevy of corporate suitors.

Fate smiled at Dr. Lindmayer again in 1983, when Amoco bought out Solarex for $25 million. Almost before the ink was dry on the agreement, oil prices plunged and gasoline lines vanished. The oil crisis ended almost abruptly as it had started.

So, too, did America's interest in solar energy. Once the darling of Wall Street, alternative-energy companies such as Solarex lost favor among investors. And federal funding for solar research, which had ballooned during the oil crisis, all but dried up.

"I seem to have a knack for good timing," says Dr. Lindmayer, who became a millionaire overnight as a result of the buyout. "Sometimes it's absolutely frightening."

It remains to be seen whether Dr. Lindmayer can beat the odds with his current business ventures, three high-tech companies based in Rockville. The companies -- Quantex Corp., Optex Corp. and Photonex Corp. -- are engaged in the heady world of "photonics," the scientific term for the use of photons, the building blocks of light.

It's a promising field, but Dr. Lindmayer faces major obstacles, including financing, competition from major companies -- and his own headstrong style.

The Lindmayer companies, which together have about 65 employees, are independent from each other in their financing, risks and business objectives. But they share the vision of their founder, who believes photonics is the key to bridging the gap between scientific imagination and commercial reality.

"Obviously, there is more and more talk about it," Dr. Lindmayer says of his lifelong passion for photonics. "If you can use light for communication and computation, you will be much better off. But there are not enough devices to do things with this light. . . . It's like talking about a solid-state computer and not having a solid-state transistor. This is the problem."

The photon business has been very good to Dr. Lindmayer.

Buoyed by his Solarex earnings, Dr. Lindmayer dines out nightly, travels first-class and shops for custom suits in Geneva. His palatial home in Potomac is tended by a butler.

One of Washington's most eligible bachelors, Dr. Lindmayer is often seen squiring beautiful women around town in his burgundy Jaguar, one of two luxury cars he owns. Though Dr. Lindmayer's confidants say he prefers the night life in Europe, when he's in town he is a frequent visitor of the River Club, a tony nightclub in Washington that caters to the international jet-set crowd.

That is not to say Dr. Lindmayer is a frivolous man. Far from it. He is an acknowledged genius in the world of photonics, a technological Renaissance man who sees the world through a different set of eyes and ears.

Indeed, nobody doubts the Hungarian-born scientist-turned-entrepreneur has the technical knowledge to turn photonic fantasies -- computers that run at the speed of light and night-vision devices that turn the blackest night into a sunny day -- into commercial reality.

Educated in electrical engineering at the Technical University of Budapest, Dr. Lindmayer has a a master's degree in physics from Williams College and a Ph.D. from the University of Aachen. He has been head of physics research at Sprague Electric and COMSAT and a lecturer in physics at Yale.

Dr. Lindmayer also wrote the book -- literally -- on solid-state electronics. The textbook, considered a classic, was used to teach graduate students until the early 1980s. He wrote the book 1965 at the age of 33.

But timing, as evidenced by Solarex's meteoric success, can be critical to the success of any business venture. And it isn't clear that the market is ready for what Dr. Lindmayer has to offer. Many inventions, such as his erasable optical disc, make hay of accepted industry standards.

Even Dr. Lindmayer acknowledges that some of his current work is so far ahead of the technological curve that it may take a while for the market to catch on -- and for investors to catch up.

Privately held Quantex had revenues of $4 million last year, which puts the 6-year-old company near the break-even point. But the other two spinoffs, Optex and Photonex, are still short about $20 million in funding despite the steady parade of would-be investors and corporate partners that visit the Rockville lab almost weekly to take a look at the leading-edge technology being pioneered by Dr. Lindmayer and his researchers.

"I'm always too far out front," Dr. Lindmayer said. "Being too far ahead, sometimes, is not fun."

But trying to figure out how to harness nature's atomic workhorse is challenging.

Like their electrical counterparts, electrons, photons have speed, power and versatility that can be harnessed for a variety of

engineering applications. But unlike electrons, photons don't generate decay-causing heat, the enemy of solid-state materials.

Photons, the smallest particles of light, have another enviable advantage in the atomic world -- speed. Nothing in nature is faster.

The trick, according to Dr. Lindmayer, is finding ways to consistently channel that speed and might -- and do it efficiently and cheaply.

Dr. Lindmayer is not alone in his fascination with photonics. Industry heavyweights such as International Business Machines, Sony and Cray have committed considerable resources and brainpower to researching the power of the photon, with an eye on optical computing applications.

Dr. Lindmayer, for his part, has had some success in finding ways to put the photon to work.

One Lindmayer invention turns invisible light into visible light and stores light energy for later use, which is known as "electron trapping," or "ET." Dr. Lindmayer said he discovered the manifestation after examining more than 2,000 combinations of rare-earth elements in his Rockville lab.

"I thought we had found gold," Dr. Lindmayer says of his critically acclaimed discovery. "No, it was better than gold."

The process, essentially a method of storing an image or data field of photon energy, works like this: Electrons are captured in a crystalline layer of material, then elevated to a higher energy state where they remain until forced out by infrared photons. Once freed, they fall back to their previous orbits, releasing energy -- in the form of bright emissions -- in the process.

The patented ET process is central to work at all three Lindmayer companies and is among more than 30 patents the inventor now holds.

Quantex has developed a number of products that exploit the ET phenomena: There are night-vision devices that illuminate darkness, sensor cubes that allow users to photograph infrared laser beams, low-dosage medical X-rays, electroluminescent lamps and laser-beam alignment screens.

Though most Quantex products are aimed at the military or commercial labs, use of the ET technology pioneered by Dr. Lindmayer seems to be limited only by the imagination of customers.

In a spinoff of the electroluminescent application, for example, Quantex developed panels for use in multicolored giant dragonfly wings in the nightly Electric Light Parade at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. Other applications for Dr. Lindmayer's ET technology include lighted makeup mirrors for cars and landing illumination for helipads.

Optex, a sister company founded in 1986, has absorbed about $10 million in venture funds so far to develop an erasable memory disc. The radical invention, which is still a few years away from commercial production, allows an unlimited number of writing and erasure cycles.

Existing technology permits erasures. But discs degrade over time from heat and decay generated by electromechanical devices or laser heat. Even the most durable conventional disc will erode after a few hundred thousand erasures.

A prototype Optex disc, by comparison, recently survived 100 million erasure cycles -- with no degradation in data or materials. The technology, once commercialized, has implications for all computers, from desktop models to pricey workstations.

"Everybody's agreed that if this is developed, we're talking about billions of dollars in new business," Dr. Lindmayer says. "Nobody argues that point."

About $20 million is needed to get the Optex disc into commercial production.

Optex is seeking a corporate partner to provide funding. Though the names of a number of potential suitors have surfaced -- Sony and IBM have been mentioned -- no deals have been signed.

Then there is Photonex, the newest of the three Lindmayer companies.

Founded a year ago, Photonex is exploring photonic technologies to boost the performance of standard electronic computers. Core technology, once again, is the patented ET technique. Photonex hopes to eventually develop a machine that is 1,000 times faster than the fastest conventional electronic computer, performing several complicated number-crunching tasks simultaneously at close to the speed of light.

Photonex, which has received about $1 million in funding from a Norwegian investment group, still needs about $2 million to advance to the next research stage, Dr. Lindmayer estimates.

He declines to say how much Photonex will need to get its optical computing devices into production, saying simply: "That's a long way off."

It isn't clear when, or if, the necessary funding will come through to see the Lindmayer projects to fruition. Given the dearth of intermediary financing for high-risk projects these days, companies like Optex and Photonex are hard sells, says Walter Plosilia, president of the Montgomery County High Technology Council.

"He's at that stage where you have to make inventions to make it reality, to capture markets and capture market share," Mr. Plosilia said. "That's where the rubber hits the road, and that's where a lot of people aren't successful. Only time will tell."

Some observers say Dr. Lindmayer would enhance his chances of snagging funding if he focused his attentions on one or two projects instead of diffusing his efforts among the three companies and their numerous projects.

But Dr. Lindmayer won't hear of it. He says he's too busy pushing back the frontiers of science to be intellectually constrained by such concerns.

" 'You have to focus,' the venture [capital] people keep telling me," says Dr. Lindmayer, his hands sweeping through the air in mock horror. "Well, I don't want to focus. . . . It worries the venture capitalists because of that."

Indeed, Dr. Lindmayer met with more than 30 venture funds before finding one that would help finance Optex. Venture funds across the nation, including a few in Baltimore, passed on his companies.

Many would-be financiers publicly describe Dr. Lindmayer as a brilliant inventor. But they privately complain that the Hungarian scientist is bullheaded to a fault, not much of a manager and inflexible when it comes to taking business advice from outsiders.

One that did bite was Gryphon Ventures L.P. of Boston, which invested $2 million initially in Optex. According to William Aikman, general partner in the firm, Gryphon will expand its stake in Optex to about $6 million within six months. The firm is also an investor in Quantex.

Mr. Aikman agreed that small start-ups like Quantex need to focus somewhat. But he disagreed with the notion that a lack of focus is a problem at the Lindmayer companies.

"We would rather have a company in our portfolio with multiple opportunities to pick and choose from than a company with one or two alternatives if something went wrong," Mr. Aikman said. "We feel it's an embarrassment of riches. We'd rather worry later about focusing."

Mr. Aikman concedes that Dr. Lindmayer sometimes makes him difficult to work with. But his management skills have never been an issue at Gryphon, the financier says.

"He's been running a high-tech, state-of-the-art, start-up operation at a break-even level for a number of successive quarters, and you won't find many companies of that age or technological orientation of which that is true," Mr. Aikman said. "That alone talks to Joe's managerial talents."

Dr. Lindmayer's technologies and scientific inventions may flirt with fantasy, but his business acumen is purely pragmatic.

Dr. Lindmayer has only invested about $200,000 of his own funds in Quantex, preferring to spread his companies' risk among outside investors. That has left the balance of his personal fortune, amassed during his Solarex days, largely intact.

Financial freedom has translated into scientific freedom for Dr. Lindmayer, who makes no bones about his preference for science over convention. His financial future secure, Dr. Lindmayer is free to plumb the depths of his scientific fantasies, turning the impossible into the possible, the improbable into fact.

That approach, he says, worked well with Solarex. And he believes it might just work again.

"Everybody should try to advance the knowledge of humanity, to understand something better that was not understood before. Because no matter how small it seems, the point is to add to this knowledge," says a suddenly resolute Dr. Lindmayer.

"And if you can make money in the process that's the best of all worlds. It can't get any better."

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