Operating in the fields of medicine, manufacturing, optical components, and aerospace and defense systems, Opto Eletrônica, a company in São Carlos in inland São Paulo State, was established in 1985 by researchers and former students of the São Carlos Institute of Physics at the University of São Paulo (IFSC-USP). Over the past 30 years, the company has developed and manufactured laser equipment such as barcode readers, sensors for missiles, diagnostic and surgical devices, primarily in opthalmics, in addition to lenses and cameras for satellites. The company boasts a technology portfolio that in 2010 enabled it to achieve sales of R$80 million. It had 450 employees, 85 of whom were devoted exclusively to research and development (R&D). But then trouble came knocking on the company’s door. In 2014, Opto’s sales fell to R$21 million and it was left with 150 employees, only 22 of them in the R&D division. By December 2014, the company had entered judicial reorganization, a formal legal measure to avoid bankruptcy, retain its equipment, facilitate the payment of debt and reorganize management of the business. “The decline in sales was caused by a series of events, mainly the discontinuation of government programs in the space and defense industries,” says Mário Stefani, Opto’s director of research and development and one of the five founding partners still with the company. Since it supplied cameras for the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite program (CBERS-3 and -4), which is now in space, no other government project has come the company’s way.
“We had developed a lot of projects and products for the space and defense industries, but unfortunately they did not go forward, and this, along with the lack of financial planning for the various investments made, caused the company to lose the working capital it needed for its daily operations,” says Gustavo Henrique Rodrigues, Opto CEO. He had been hired by the partners in 2012 to attract investors and seek additional capital for the company. “Opto’s banking and labor-related liabilities stand at R$35 million,” Rodrigues says. He also notes that the partners invested R$75 million between 2005 and 2012 to build an equipment and machinery infrastructure at Opto. “This infrastructure along with our employees constitutes our greatest asset,” Rodrigues says. “We’ve always invested an average of 10% to 16% of what we’ve billed in R&D,” Rodrigues says. Company infrastructure is divided between the factory in São Carlos, which focuses on projects and products for the medical, defense and space industries, and three other factories: in São Paulo, Porto Alegre and Fortaleza that produce thin-film anti-reflective lenses.
|São Carlos, SP|
|No. of employees|
|Medical, industrial, optical components and aerospace and defense systems|
“The company was originally established to produce helium-neon lasers, which at the time were manufactured by only a few companies in the world,” Stefani says. “Production of the lasers led to the first clash between the academic and corporate perspectives.” The highly anticipated line of product purchasers never materialized and today, it can be seen among the collection in the Opto Memorial, a room that tells the story of the company through a display of its products that were – or were not – commercial successes. A change in perspective was needed, so the team went back to creating products that used that original technology. “From the outset, the helium-neon laser was modified to make it a product that could serve as a guideline for cutting sheets of metal, wood or marble.” A device derived from this original laser intended for aligning tracks for ore-carrying trains from Vale in Carajás, Pará State is also on display in the memorial.
“We took part in an international call for proposals to provide the alignment system for the Carajás Railroad and found ourselves competing against huge companies like the German Siemens,” says 53 year-old Stefani, a mechanical and electronic engineering graduate from São Carlos Engineering School of USP who earned his master’s and PhD in physics from the IFSC in the field of optics. The weight of the ore carried by the trains would cause the track to become distorted, resulting in delays in product deliveries to ships in the port of Itaqui, in São Luís, Maranhão State. “We won the contract on the basis of our technological advantages, not our price.” Due to weather conditions that involved high temperatures and bright sunshine, the Siemens system was unable to detect the laser’s signal. “We figured out how to process a signal that was able to distinguish the light of the laser from sunshine, a technique that was then patented.” From 1988 to 1989, the company sold 16 such systems to Vale, for the sum of $650,000, which guaranteed the future of the company from inland São Paulo.
In another project done in partnership with Itautec from 1986 to 1989, the company developed Brazil’s first barcode reader for supermarkets. It was a success that did not result in financial gains, however, as sales over the years did not materialize as anticipated. As soon as the reader was ready, it was installed in the Real Supermarket in Porto Alegre (state of Rio Grande do Sul). However, a safety stamp with the words “warning, laser radiation” translated from the North American regulations led to a great deal of confusion and losses for the company. A pregnant worker filed a complaint with the Ministry of Labor because she thought the light that was emitted would harm her fetus – and the supermarket was ordered to close. “We were innovators, but businesses in Brazil were not yet ready to use the product.”
Other avenues began to open up for Opto. One of the founding partners, a professor at the Physics Institute of USP, Jarbas Caiado de Castro Neto, company president at the time, came up with the idea to represent some North American companies that made lasers for use in ophthalmic surgeries, which proved to be an excellent business opportunity. Opportunities in manufacturing began to appear with regard to the development of distance meters as a result of the Vale project. One of these opportunities, which was for a non-contact system for measuring distance and thickness, developed for the rubber industry and the subject of Stefani’s PhD dissertation, was patented by Opto and caught the attention of the team led by Air Force Brigadier General Hugo de Oliveira Piva who invited the company to take part in developing an air-to-air missile (a weapon to be used by aircraft against other aircraft) for Iraq. The project did not go forward because of the Gulf War and the US invasion of Iraq in early 1991. In 1993, at Piva’s initiative, a team of engineers that had been in Iraq established the company Mectron – and again Opto was invited to work on another missile project, this time for the Brazilian Air Force (FAB). “This is how we got into the aerospace defense market working on thermal cameras, optical devices that allow the laser to see the target because of the heat, and on target proximity sensors.”
In the midst of all of this, the medical company representation initiative achieved a performance benchmark. “We became the largest market outside the United States in sales of ophthalmic lasers,” says Stefani. In 1997, however, the company had to rework its strategies. One Friday night, it received a fax from a US company, canceling its Brazilian representation activities. That was when the partners decided to develop their own laser for medical use . For this they used part of the circuit from the missile laser fuse that measures the distance to the target, in a method patented by Opto, to make medical devices for ophthalmic surgery. “Within six months, we were able to manufacture a laser device for use in surgery.” It was the first device developed and certified in Brazil for this purpose and the model is still manufactured by Opto today. From there, the company began to develop equipment for the medical industry, such as microscopes, digital retinography systems and other types of lasers. “FAPESP has made significant contributions to these developments through its PIPE program [Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program],” says Stefani. Today the company has a portfolio of 25 medical products which, when accessories are included , actually brings the figure to more than 100.
Alessandro Damiani Mota, 34, medical products project manager, began working at Opto as an intern in 2005 and has already taken part in developing four PIPE-funded projects. The first of them sought to develop a green laser for retinal surgery. Work on it began in 2006 and the product was launched in 2007. “It is still a very successful project and a sales leader in Opto’s laser division,” he says. The device treats bleeding caused by diabetes. “The project resulted in a master’s thesis and know-how for the team to use on other equipment,” says Mota, an electronics engineer who received both his undergraduate and master’s degrees from USP São Carlos in ophthalmic instrumentation. His thesis led to the production of a yellow laser, also used to treat the retina, with support from the Brazilian Innovation Agency (FINEP). “Because it has a more suitable wave length, the device uses less power and therefore the thermal effect in the treated region is more localized, allowing more healthy cells to be preserved,” he explains. Another device he has worked on is the retinal laser scanner. In this case, the green laser is used as a scanner capable of selecting up to 50 potential treatment points. The project ended in 2011 and after validation the product was placed on the market.
Mota is currently working in a partnership with São Paulo State University (Unesp) in Araraquara, which has also received PIPE funding, to produce LED equipment that emits ultraviolet light for the treatment of keratoconus, a disorder that deforms the cornea. It was with a system to treat keratoconus based on the interaction of UV light and vitamin B (riboflavin), known as crosslinking, that Opto obtained its first global certification in Europe. “We were able to obtain certification before our competition did,” says 46 year-old Paulo Aneas Lichti, certifications manager.
With an undergraduate degree in materials engineering from the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), where he earned his master’s in science and technology, Lichti started working for the company in 1994. His first project was developing a sensor for missiles. Over time, he also began to work on protecting the knowledge generated throughout the product development process, and he earned two MBAs at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV) in São Paulo: one in project management and the other in general management. He highlights another victory in his field, obtaining the first certification ever from Brazil’s National Institute of Metrology, Quality, and Technology (Inmetro) for calibrating an infrared laser device used to treat diseases that affect the retina. “Up to that time, there was no defined standard.”
Opto took part in developing and manufacturing two of the four cameras that make up the payload of CBERS-3 and -4, developed through a partnership between Brazil and China. The multi-spectral camera known as MUX and the WFI (Wide Field Imager) have sensors that use different color images to highlight areas of deforestation and water resources. Alexandre Soares, 37, who earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from USP São Carlos in 1999, started working at Opto in 2000 on the missile fuse project and then on development of the digital retinography system. In 2004 he took part in the CBERS projects. “I started working as an engineer on the project then began to lead the team in charge of the electronics, and in 2010 took over project management of the MUX camera.” In 2009, Soares also helped develop the proposal to design the A-Darter missile fuse in a partnership involving Brazil and South Africa. “We made the thermal camera, the ‘eye’, which provides the parameters for guiding the missile.” The project is in its final phase of development. While the company’s R&D division continues its incomparable cutting-edge work in this industry in Brazil, Opto directors are exploring various avenues for resolving the company’s financial difficulties.Republish