Business Forum: Should I work for this photonics company?

Analyze potential job offers at startup companies by understanding the company’s financial goals, the short- and long-term potential of the product or application, and whether the position aligns with your long-term career goals.


Two Laser Focus World readers—both mid-level photonics engineering managers—asked me about two different job offers. One offer is from a pre-IPO company that manufactures photonics components for telecommunications, and the other is an early-stage photonics biotech instrumentation startup. Both individuals were focusing on the compensation package, on issues such as how to look at the value of the stock options, and what benefits are being offered by other companies. That led me to think about how one should look at photonics jobs from a career perspective. I will address their concerns first and set aside until later the more critical issue to think about, whether the job is aligned with one’s career goals.

The surprising thing is both individuals were told the number of option shares, but not the number of shares outstanding. There is no way to estimate the value of the option shares without both numbers.

Most late-stage venture-backed companies have a huge number of shares outstanding after a few rounds of funding—sometimes hundreds of millions of shares (one hundred thousand shares sounds good, but…). The candidate could ask for the percentage ownership when the option is fully vested. One could also ask for an educated guess of when an exit may occur and the likely valuation. It would be a concern if the person making the offer is not upfront about this. My guess is the question rarely comes up during an interview.

The number of shares outstanding for the biotech startup is good to know, but does not tell much because there will be many subsequent rounds of funding to dilute the ownership. It is more important to make an assessment of the viability of the company to know whether the company could succeed.

Photonics applications have a bright future, but you should be aware of the reality that very few startups in that field survive. The product development cycle is very long, getting FDA approval is an arduous journey, and market acceptance is iffy. Given the high risk, emulate what investors do, be extra thorough in doing your own research, and consult knowledgeable healthcare professionals, especially those who are familiar with that specific application. A medical product won’t succeed unless it is a perfect fit. Cheaper and better won’t cut it. And find out whether the company has strong financial backing from investors who are healthcare industry insiders.

Knowing how to get to the right people to get information is an invaluable asset. This is one good reason to be active in professional societies, such as the OSA and SPIE.

Getting back to the bigger issue of one’s career future, photonics opportunities are in applications—therefore, consider early in your career where your expertise can be put to work. Ultimately, R&D has to connect to applications down the road. One can argue doing so not only gives you career options, but also provides focus to your research. Why not pay attention to potential applications of your work?

I also advocate starting your working career with an established company to get exposed to professional management processes. Select a company with a fine reputation because you will be branded with it. Gain depth and breadth in your technical expertise and also gain managerial and business skills. Find a company that has a culture of nurturing its employees by supporting continuous education, mentoring, and cross-functional training to understand how different parts of the company function. And if your long-term ambition is entrepreneurship, then work for a company that encourages their engineers to support sales and marketing, take on project management responsibilities, and participate in intrapreneurial initiatives.

In short, think about how you can do what you enjoy doing and also have opportunities open up in front of you. Each job change is a fork in the road of your career path.

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