It isn't every day in quiet downtown Dunedin that a company boasts that data taken from a spectrometer dubbed "Alice" helped NASA confirm the presence of water on the moon. Or that the company is prepping for an upcoming mission to Mars. Or that firm has its own Superheroes of Spectroscopy comic book.
Who are these guys?
Sitting by one of many fish tanks (more on them later) scattered around the two-floor, downtown headquarters of Ocean Optics, I ask former president and now chairman Rob Randelman what kind of people he looks for when hiring. He answers with two words. The first one is, uh, unexpected.
He is, of course, referring to the 1980s TV show about the resourceful secret agent called MacGyver who created unorthodox solutions from basic materials around him. Randelman likes the term because he looks for problem-solvers, people who can dig at challenges using fresh approaches.
Though Ocean Optics' business is based largely on the technology behind its hand-held mass spectrometers — portable devices that measure tiny changes in light — the company rarely hires people with mainstream backgrounds.
The second word Randelman volunteers that is critical when hiring?
The chairman, who is the last interview for most people hired at Ocean Optics, looks for candidates' personal stories of how they overcame obstacles in their lives. He wants resilient employees who will not accept failure when tackling a customer's problem.
Ocean Optics' labs are designed with room for customers to work side by side with company scientists. It's collaborative and creative. But it's also how Ocean Optics builds close and personal ties to its customer base.
"It sounds silly" is a phrase Randelman, who holds a doctorate in engineering, uses more than once. But for this company, it works.
Ocean Optics was a business founded by accident, a University of South Florida spinoff that founder Mike Morris started with a crude tool that measured pH differences in ocean water as an indicator of ocean warming. But the company now offers a range of portable measurement devices like spectroscopes and fiber optic sensors as potential solutions to problems ranging from disease detection and environmental pollution to matching paint colors and interplanetary analysis. Think of the company's measurement devices like Legos: They can be built to any specification.
"Our breakthrough," said Randelman, 51, "was when we stopped bringing the sample to the instrument but rather the instrument to the sample."
What's ahead? Look for technology to vastly miniaturize the company's devices, driving down costs and opening up "extraordinarily exciting" markets.
Like Ocean Optics' name, the company fish tanks are a symbolic salute to its business roots. So is Randelman's business lingo. A "red ocean" market is one marked by tough competition. A "blue ocean" market has fewer competitors and is even better if measuring devices like spectroscopes and sensors are not yet a gleam of the imagination.
There are more company phrases. Working at Ocean Optics means joining "the Tribe." The best problem-solvers, those who dig the most, are called "the Detectives."
"We want different thinkers," says Randelman, whose own resume includes stints at Exxon and HP. "Certain people fit in. Others do not."
Any MacGyvers out there?
Robert Trigaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.