Nuburu: Building the blue light specialty

May 13, 2024
Brian Knaley, the newly appointed CEO and incumbent CFO of blue laser technology company Nuburu, shares the mix of experiences and learnings that brought him—and the company—success.

Long before Brian Knaley became a C-level executive, he was working his way through a small liberal arts school in Kentucky, Thomas More University.

When Knaley received his bachelor’s degree in accounting, he began working at a public accounting firm. His work there provided him with not only a solid foundation of auditing and taxes, but a thorough understanding how businesses are set up—and what makes them successful.

Knaley has carried these early lessons through his wide and varied career to his current role as chief executive officer and chief financial officer of Nuburu.

Picking up learnings

Shortly after school, Knaley joined Colorado-based Ball Corporation, where he honed his skills in manufacturing: As a packaging company, Ball made everything from wrapping for beverages to aerospace equipment. Eventually he spent about five years in their Hong Kong offices, fine-tuning Ball’s Asian operations. In his time there, he absorbed as much as possible about the workings of Chinese businesses and took his region from a cash usage situation of $20 million to cash generation of $20 million.

Another overseas opportunity

That success fueled Knaley‘s professional development; when Caterpillar, the leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, off-highway diesel and natural gas engines, industrial gas turbines and diesel-electric locomotives, sought well-rounded and entrepreneurial finance folks, he climbed aboard.

As business support manager and vice president of finance of Caterpillar’s tunneling arm, Knaley spent three years in Toronto, working on internal audits, further developing his marketing and acquisition skills, and adding to his already broad knowledge of manufacturing. He believes Caterpillar succeeds by developing its people and providing them with very clear and well-articulated goals. His tenure there encouraged a tight focus on key performance indicators (KPIs) to drive business. He was also encouraged to think differently, but also work diligently for change and progress, demonstrating that success comes not from any sort of magic, but through good, old-fashioned hard work.

Man of steel

When family needs brought Knaley back to the United States, he took on the position of general manager and controller at steel manufacturer ArcelorMittal in Indiana. Close to his own midwestern roots, he learned all he could about the steel industry from his talented colleagues.

Knaley aimed to take the knowledge he gained from Ball and Caterpillar and apply it to employee development: One of his areas of focus was to ensure long-time employees were able to impart their knowledge to new recruits—and vice versa.

During Knaley‘s time at ArcelorMittal, the company acquired ThyssenKrupp for $1.5 billion in 2013. Through this new business arm, he began to learn more about laser cutting, including high-powered plasma lasers. This newfound knowledge led him to the area of medical devices—and ultimately to join Spectranetics.

Spectranetics’ products treat peripheral artery disease through minimally invasive vascular interventions. As vice president and corporate controller of Spectranetics, Knaley managed all financial and accounting operations, and successfully assisted in directing the negotiations that led to the company being acquired by Phillips for $2 billion in 2017.

That dip into the laser waters led Knaley to draw on past experiences and consider how lasers could be applied in manufacturing. Identifying that important niche—which drew together his diverse talents—is what led him to his current role at Nuburu, a developer and manufacturer of industrial blue lasers.

Understanding more

A lifelong learner, Knaley has literally made it his business to learn the physics of lasers. For that, he gives credit to the team he’s worked with at Nuburu, including COO Brian Fairclough and founder Mark Zediker. Although his background is finance, Knaley believes in deeply understanding a business to grow a business. As he rightly points out, when you dig into a business and what makes it tick, you uncover new areas of potential, and lasers aren’t any different. Plus, it’s intensely rewarding to have an inside view of the fascinating technology behind laser applications.

Knaley believes the finance area also remains exciting in this specialized space. For example, consider delivering capital equipment: How do you thread the needle of supply chain difficulties (as were present in 2022), capital equipment delivery, and growing revenue? Or how can you be creative in deferring a capital equipment spend? Those problems can only be solved by thinking resourcefully from a financial and business management standpoint.

Building a legacy

At Nuburu, Knaley applies his experience in the manufacturing industry and his business acumen toward the development of the company’s laser technology. In fact, in this role, he’s not only managing the public market side of the house, but also growing the business, transitioning from the first generation of lasers into the next, and supporting the corresponding product launches that arise from that work.

That growth trajectory began the moment Knaley came on board: When he joined Nuburu in February 2022, he immediately began preparing the company for a transition to a Nasdaq public listing via a designation as a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC), planned for later that year. Although the accounting and finance side of going public was nothing new to him, this work involved a significant amount of relationship-building and partner selection, all while keeping timelines in mind.

Another critical component came in the form of technological evolution. Although Nuburu’s technical team is world-class, launching this public offering also meant honing product development and knowing where they were headed with their single-mode solution, their multi-kilowatt offering, and beyond. That meant a transition from their original AO series to the BL series that they have today. That shift raises questions: How does the company convey these developments in a way that complements technical and commercial needs? What are the new markets that emerge as part of these changes?

According to Knaley, bigger isn’t always necessarily better on the wattage side: Nuburu can really compete in precision manufacturing through blue laser technology. Wire stripping pieces in automotive, precise connectors in personal computing, and more require a level of exactitude made possible through the company’s laser technology. In addition, because of their unique solution with its absorbency in reflective materials, the medical device community serves as another strong target for the technology; there’s an ecosystem around 1 kW and below that is as robust as that of large lasers for particular tasks. That’s where the company tends to focus attention in 2024—on opportunities that spur their growth to the next level.

Operational advantages 

Equally important this year is reducing expenses, and the question of how to reduce costs looms large. Knaley has taken the approach of investigating opportunities for cost reduction on the most difficult item to find in the supply chain, and then work his way back. In his experience, if a company can pinpoint the “biggest bang for the buck,” it can affect more substantive change. So, he and his team are exploring that potential.

Knaley also advocates another strategy for optimizing business performance: Diversify vendor partners. Having a sole provider makes a company beholden to them, so it’s preferable not to use a lone source for anything if possible. That mindset means that he’s always keeping his eyes out for possibilities. For instance, when networking at a recent industry conference, it dawned on him that while he could identify potential customers, just as easily, he should be uncovering possible partners. Now, when they travel, he encourages his team to go to events with a shopping list of sorts: Who are the new vendors? What are the other ways to get to customers? Technology on its own won’t usually win, but balancing terrific technology with reasonable costs will go a long way.

Moving forward

It comes as no surprise that Knaley would like to expand opportunities for blue laser technology, and to grow Nuburu overall. The portfolio is wonderful, he believes, and the serviceable and addressable markets are massive. The solutions for multiple use cases are out there.

Is there a perfect scenario? Great growth and great returns for shareholders, Knaley says.

That’s going to come from raising awareness of what blue lasers can do and getting folks into the apps lab to see it in action. They’ve recently hired more staff to keep up with demand, which Knaley finds exciting. Other avenues in addition to medical and automotive are coming up for the technology; there’s a lot of opportunity out there, he believes.

To spread the word, marketing will be key. Although internally they know what they’re capable of, the rest of the world could become better acquainted; Knaley envisions marketing and Board connections playing a larger role as the company grows.

Knaley prefers to look toward the future—while using his experience to guide him. As they say, hindsight is 20/20—but from his perspective, those lessons learned and applied to tomorrow’s vision will take the company to where they want to be.

About the Author

Jose Pozo | Chief Technology Officer, Optica

Jose Pozo joined Optica in March 2022, and has spent more than 25 years working in photonics. He earned a PhD in quantum physics from the University of Bristol (U.K.), and an M.Sc. and B.Eng. in telecom engineering from UPNA, Spain / VUB (Belgium). Prior to joining the European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC) in 2015 as CTO, Jose was a Senior Photonics Technology Consultant with PNO Consultants, with some of the main accounts such as CERN, Thales, and TE Connectivity. He has worked at TNO, The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, and as a postdoctoral researcher at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, where he contributed to the early development of EFFECT Photonics.

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