Energetiq: From Humble Beginnings to a Force in Photonics

(June 6, 2024)

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Conjuring an innovative idea to solve a practical problem isn’t a simple task. Transforming that idea into a thriving business to compete in an industry filled with established players seems insurmountable. But that’s exactly what Paul Blackborow, Don Smith, and Matt Besen – three of the co-founders of Energetiq – set out to accomplish. While working together at MKS in 2003, the trio had a vision to create an Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) light source that could be utilized in the ever-evolving semiconductor market. At that time, EUV light sources were considered the next up-and-coming wave of sources to be incorporated into semiconductor production. With Paul as CEO, Don as President, and Matt leading the engineering team, they officially founded Energetiq in Woburn, Massachusetts in 2004.

Work started quickly on the company’s initial EUV source model, and it wasn’t long after that they located their first customer in a research team at the University at Albany. Despite the sale being a major win for the fledgling startup, the group soon realized that the prospect of EUV as a viable production light source might not be as immediate as they originally thought. “We were told by some big companies that EUV was going to go into production in 2009. It didn’t actually go into production until about 2022. So, with that in mind, we didn’t want to become a one-trick pony,” said Paul. The co-founders looked to companies in the market with which they already had existing relationships to help generate new ideas for need-based solutions that could expand their product portfolio.  

One such potential fit was a major inspection and metrology company. In early 2005, conversations began regarding how Energetiq’s new EUV source could be modified to fit the company’s needs for an upcoming project. When Paul, Don and Matt saw how much money the company was willing to spend on joint development, they surmised that the project and subsequent need for a solution was relatively large. The parameters outlined for the project sparked an idea for Don. Rather than continue to rely on conventional arc lamp technology, which has a short lifespan and is relatively unreliable, why not design a Xenon-based, high-brightness light source sustained by a laser instead? Thus, the Laser-Driven Light Source (LDLS®) was born.

A Legacy Product in the Making

Initial experiments for the LDLS started in December of 2005, and the first patent for the technology followed in the spring of 2006. When the work was completed, Paul contemplated applications for the LDLS beyond the realm of semiconductors. He landed on the Life Sciences industry and convinced the other co-founders there was a large opportunity at hand, authoring a white paper that detailed the feasibility of the LDLS for applications such as high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). The paper made its way around to potential customers and generated a great amount of interest. So much interest, in fact, that almost every HPLC company who read the paper purchased an LDLS. “The problem, though, was that all they ever bought was one LDLS,” said Paul. “It turned out they didn’t really need it as much as I thought.”

Although the foray into Life Sciences was less fruitful than expected, the LDLS was still selling well enough for the company to break even. It was becoming clear that the pivot to this technology was setting up Energetiq for other growth opportunities. Later that same year, talks with the major inspection and metrology company resumed concerning a different project. They were enamored with the technology behind the LDLS but grew concerned that Energetiq was too small a company to produce the number of units required. After agreeing to pay Energetiq a licensing fee of several million dollars, they took a shot at building their own version of the LDLS.

Screenshot 2024-05-01 151822-4The LDLS's latest achievement includes winning The Laser Society of Japan's Excellent Product Award. 
Read the full press release to learn more about the award and the innovation that went into LDLS®.

Read the Press Release


The licensing fee helped sustain Energetiq’s operations, becoming a lifeline at a time when LDLS sales were slowly but steadily ramping up and EUV production was still working toward profitability. The money allowed Energetiq to bolster their manufacturing capabilities and put a legitimate enterprise resource planning (ERP) system in place. One key player around this time was Claire Brown, whose experience in manufacturing enabled Energetiq to build things the correct way from the ground up. Another was Debbie Gustafson, current CEO of Energetiq, who had joined Energetiq to lead the company’s sales team in 2005. “Debbie was really important when it came to managing customer engagements and making sure customers remained happy, even when we engineers were a bit arrogant sometimes about how good the products were,” said Paul.

Because of the groundwork laid by their small team, Energetiq remained cautiously optimistic about its future and the overall viability of the LDLS. In a sense, it was the only option, as the co-founders all agree they didn’t really have a “plan B” looking back on it now. After an Israeli group overseas began purchasing large quantities of Energetiq’s LDLS for metrology applications, Energetiq found itself gaining more credibility and business with other major players in the semiconductor space. Companies quickly grew wise to the fact that they were losing ground to competitors by continuing to rely on Xenon arc lamps in place of Energetiq’s novel solution.

Similar to many small startups who eventually find their footing, the path to success was also littered with a handful of failures. A myriad of projects and experiments never saw the light of day, including Energetiq’s own version of a production-level EUV source. Regardless, they never shied away from new ideas given that the upside to a potential breakthrough was so high. Matt believes the ingenuity and humble ability to self-assess failure is part of what created a winning environment for their small team.

When I think about the things we baked into the culture, I mention not having a fear of failure. There’s a day when you look at something you thought was a great idea and realize it isn’t going to work. To be able to pivot away and keep our eyes on the real prize – not proving that we were right about something but instead building a viable business – I believe we made those hard decisions multiple times. And I think that’s one of the most fundamental qualities you want in a team like ours.


Not all new projects were unsuccessful, however. Around 2017, a customer came forward looking for a tunable light source that could be used to calibrate color sensors. Matt, Don, and fellow scientist Huiling Zhu believed they could incorporate Energetiq’s LDLS technology into a solution that would address the customer’s needs. The group traveled to Malaysia to perform a demonstration of their new product, the Laser-Driven Tunable Light Source (LDTLS®). Competing against other companies like Newport for the business, the team literally cobbled together their first prototype on a breadboard. Due to the high-power nature of the LDLS technology driving the LDTLS, Energetiq blew their competitors out of the water. Their tunable light source was instantly more impressive than any commercial offering currently on the market. “We turned on our light source, and it was no contest,” said Matt.

Energetiq’s new LDTLS won them the bid for the contract, and the stalwart manufacturing backbone already in place enabled them to produce hundreds of units in a short span. The timing of the business with this new customer couldn’t have been more perfect, as co-founders Paul, Matt, and Don were beginning to consider selling the company. This latest success gave them an additional product in their portfolio and even more credibility with major players in the industry.

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When the time to sell did finally arise, Hamamatsu Photonics ended up winning the bidding war and acquired Energetiq in 2017. Matt and Don retired shortly thereafter, with Paul staying on another four years in various roles with both Energetiq and its new parent company. He continues to work for Hamamatsu as a part-time consultant today, while Don and Matt occasionally assist Debbie at Energetiq. Headquartered in Wilmington, Massachusetts, Energetiq recently surpassed 100 employees and expanded into a new 66,000 square-foot facility that will allow them to grow exponentially as the business evolves.

When considering Energetiq’s future, the trio believes the LDLS will continue to drive business for the next quarter century.

“I would think the LDLS would be dominant in the company’s future because there’s such a large range of applications for it, and the businesses that are using it are growing themselves. And they’re probably growing at about the same rate that EUV production is growing,” said Don. EUV light sources remain highly expensive to design and build, but their recent emergence in semiconductor production is a sign that more partnerships between major companies and developmental startups like Energetiq could be on the rise.

With crucial lessons learned, a proven product portfolio, and an expanded space to continue engineering innovative photonics solutions, the long-term outlook for Energetiq certainly shines bright.  

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