Faces in Photonics: John T.C. Lee, MKS Instruments

Nov. 8, 2022
MKS Instruments CEO John T.C. Lee discusses his passion for photonics, innovation, collaboration, and DEI.

The Faces in Photonics series shines a light on scientists, researchers, leaders, and educators from all over the world whose work is reshaping the optics and photonics industry. This month we are spotlighting John T.C. Lee, PhD, president and chief executive officer of MKS Instruments.

LFW: What attracted you to the photonics industry?

Lee: As we studied mega-trends in the industry, photonics and laser processing clearly stood out for their emerging potential. I firmly believe that continued research and innovation in photonics will lead to new markets and opportunities that can’t even be imagined today. What really excites me about photonics is the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of growth in this area – just as we have been in the semiconductor market over the past 60 years. We feel we can continue to drive that same kind of game-changing innovation in photonics by integrating core technologies from the MKS, Newport Spectra-Physics and Ophir brands, as well as bring this innovation to other markets. 

LFW: How important is innovation as the industry continues to evolve?

Lee: Innovation has always been and will always be the cornerstone of our business. We work closely with our customers to become their go-to critical problem-solving partners. This relationship is particularly important as the industry continues to evolve and change

LFW: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the photonics industry?

Lee: We see the need for an expanded set of solutions for specific applications and customers as the challenges in our industry become increasingly more complex. I believe Moore’s law in semiconductors of doubling technical capabilities every two years also applies to photonics: As the challenges multiply, we have shown the ability to significantly increase our technological capacity every two years, and delivering increased functionality to our customers. That is why we continue to be enthusiastic about the opportunities for photonics across a wide range of markets and applications.

LFW: Where do you see the biggest opportunities for collaboration across the industry?

Lee: Maintaining strong and mutually beneficial supplier-customer partnerships is essential to solving the critical challenges our industry faces. As these problems continue to be exacerbated by the trends towards miniaturization and complexity, the need for long-term, sustained partnerships with customers has become essential. In many industries, and certainly in Advanced Electronics, the breadth of solutions that can be provided to partners, combined with the financial strength to put behind long-term investments are essential—which gives us the confidence to make big bets that move the industry forward. MKS has a proven track record of sustaining these essential partnerships. Additionally, I see tremendous opportunity for educational and academic institutions to collaborate with industry organizations and partners to attract top talent to our industry.

LFW: How can a dedication to DE&I improve innovation and collaboration results?

Lee: One of my biggest priorities as a leader at MKS is sustaining and celebrating our culture of inclusivity and collaboration across the company. Prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion requires a distinct understanding of each concept while also recognizing the importance of how and where the three intersect. A diverse workforce that embraces both inherent and acquired individual traits performs better and in ways that homogenous workforces cannot. Diverse teams are better prepared to analyze risk and problem solve, precisely because they are able to view problems from various vantage points. I’ve seen firsthand how encouraging individuals to share their perspectives and expertise drives collaboration and the insights needed for creativity and innovation.

An effective, diverse team doesn’t just happen. It has to be thoughtfully developed and intentionally led with an eye toward encouraging full-team participation from inception to delivery. We need to continually foster a culture of mutual respect in order to attract and retain diverse talent and maintain a thriving workforce. This includes an emphasis on an equitable employee experience in terms of pay parity, inclusive benefits, and opportunities for professional development so that a sense of belonging becomes our organizational identity.

LFW: Where would you say MKS excels?

Lee: Throughout all of our core competencies, we have a demonstrably strong culture of innovation and operational excellence. MKS has a long and rich history of being a critical supplier to the semiconductor capital equipment and photonics industries. The markets we serve demands not only continuous innovation to solve the most complex challenges in development and manufacturing, but also strong operational capability to meet the needs of our customers. MKS is a historical leader in critical subsystems, and we’ve managed to leverage the “muscle memory” that we’ve built up over the past few decades in semiconductors to identify inflection points and execute the R&D needed to expand our leadership position in additional markets. We’re deeply proud to have been able to leverage our institutional knowledge to become a market leader in advanced electronics after identifying the need for laser-based manufacturing to enable miniaturization, and in electronics packaging after identifying the need for integrated solutions that accelerate the roadmap. Meeting these needs provided the strategic rationale behind bringing the Atotech, ESI and Newport acquisitions together at MKS

We are thrilled about the exciting opportunities that lie ahead for MKS and the photonics industry. We have a storied 60-year history as a leader in the semiconductor industry, but in the last six years alone we have expanded our expertise across photonics, lasers, and optics. And now we’ve added to our portfolio leadership in advanced packaging through our recent acquisition of Atotech Limited, which added critical chemistry expertise to augment our laser capabilities, enabling us to Optimize the InterconnectSM. This is how we’ve been able to transform the company from $800 million in annual revenue, 2,000-person, single-market products leader to a $4.5 billion, 10,000-person multi-market solutions provider. MKS is on the move – and I’m certainly proud to lead the company as we continue to advance our field. 

About the Author

Peter Fretty | Market Leader/Group Editorial Director, Laser & Military

Peter Fretty began his role as the Market Leader, Laser & Military in June 2023; the group encompasses the Laser Focus World, Military & Aerospace Electronics, and Vision Systems Design brands. He also serves as Group Editorial Director, Laser & Military (effective spring 2023) and served as Editor in Chief of Laser Focus World since October 2021. Prior to that, he was Technology Editor for IndustryWeek for two years.

As a highly experienced journalist, he has regularly covered advances in manufacturing, information technology, and software. He has written thousands of feature articles, cover stories, and white papers for an assortment of trade journals, business publications, and consumer magazines.

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