Ron Kirk came back to Findlay, Ohio, with a fireman's commission and a deep curiosity about holography. Today his small company, Holotronics, holds the brightest promise his townspeople have seen since the coming of Marathon Oil.
When we last saw Tom Swift, teenage boy wonder and ace inventor, he was trying to sell the United States War Department on his latest brainstorm: the "magnetic silencer." The year was 1940, and world peace, like the series of original Swift novels that delighted and inspired generations of young Americans, was just about over. Facing yet another panel of skeptical experts, Swift showed how his invention could keep U.S. planes safe from enemy anti-aircraft. The military boys were beside themselves with glee. "You have made a very great contribution to your country's defense!" crowed Colonel Brooks, accepting Swift's invention on behalf of his government. End of story, end of series. No one ever told us if Tom grew up to parlay his patents into a billion-dollar manufacturing fortune, or whether Brooks counseled him on an immediate public offering.
If all this seems like the province of faded adolescent fantasy, consider the very real-life saga of Ronald Kirk, a saga that even Tom Swift aficionados might find hard to believe. Kirk, 31, is the founder and chief executive officer of The Holotronics Corp., a tiny technology company with a promise so big that grown men have been known to drop the name "Xerox" beside it when groping for historical analogies.
Holotronics, which started in Kirk's basement, currently has seven employees (the officers include a fire captain and a plainclothes sheriff's deputy) and operates out of low-rent quarters in the back of Errett's Car Waxing shop, in Findlay, Ohio, the founder's hometown. Kirk moved his company into the rear of Mr. Errett's garage when he heard he could lease the space for $245 a month, heat included. On the day last September when Holotronics was notified of its award from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to develop Kirk's main invention, an Optical Tunnel Array -- a kind of spatial light modulator, or SLM (see "So What is a Spatial Light Modulator, Anyway?" page 104) -- one of Holotronics's directors was heard to remark, "If anyone from Washington came out here and saw this mess, they wouldn't believe we were for real."
Then again, they might not believe the CEO's career path, either. Kirk graduated from Findlay High School in 1970; his adoptive father worked for the Findlay Streets Department. In high school, Kirk, who was an "indifferent" student, spent most of his time reading Popular Science and Scientific American and doing weird, late-night signal-bouncing off various parts of the solar system with a homemade ham radio set.
After a stint in the Air Force (crash rescue, not electronics), Kirk moved to Bowling Green, Ohio, and in due course he wound up designing customized systems for an interconnect company in nearby Toledo -- and loathing the bureaucratic restraints imposed on his own lab experiments. So he packed up and went home, to a job with the Findlay Fire Department. The job required throwing his young body into burning buildings on a one-day-in-three basis. On his days off, he began dabbling in optics, electronics, and holography. And here, Tom Swift fans, is where the line between science fiction and established physics really begins to blur.
At the time Kirk got seriously into it, holography was, for all practical purposes, a stalled science. Although the basic principles were well known, holograms (three-dimensional images produced by a split-laser-beam-on-photographic-plate technique) represented one of those brave new technological frontiers of the 1960s that had somehow failed to deliver on its early promise. Part of the problem was patent squabbles and proprietary rights; the larger issue, however, was one of commercial application and marketability. Simply put, nobody was making much money making holograms, and several companies that had hoped to had gone under. While industry drooled over potential quality-control applications (particularly in conjunction with robotics), the tedium and expense of producing higher resolution holograms became enormous. Because of their physical fragility, these pictures were risky business. Even more disappointing, researchers had yet to come up with the one big breakthrough ("the Holy Grail," one observer called it) everyone anticipated: a way to achieve "real-time" holography, or 3-D pictures, at least 30 frames per second, that could be reprojected without going through an interim developing step In this instance, the stumbling block was processing enormous amounts of information about a single visual image in what amounts to no time at all.
"I'd been drawn to holography since reading about it in the late '60s," explains Kirk, a mercurial talker who likes to punctuate his data-laden monologues with mad bouts at the blackboard. "As I understood it, most of the work being carried out 15, 20 years ago was centered on the film part. Using bigger pieces of film to achieve life-size holograms, for instance. When I checked around with other researchers, all of them felt stymied. None of them saw film itself as the ultimate obstacle that had to be overcome."
Bear in mind that Kirk, like Swift, relishes nothing so much as the challenge of a problem that seemingly cannot be solved. Using only a chalkboard and some cheap optical hardware, he worked out the theory behind his SLM mainly in his head. The results have shocked the experts. Now in the prototype stage, Kirk's device, which substitutes an electronic film for the more conventional type used in other versions, hinges on a horizontal/vertical array of electrodes suspended in a special fluid and deployed around a single detector. Electronically manipulated signals open small tunnels in the fluid sequentially, allowing light patterns to pass through to a photocell one wave at a time. When these patterns are reconstructed, a hologram appears.
What makes Kirk's SLM different from others in production (Hughes Aircraft Co. and Litton Industries Inc. are his main domestic rivals) is matching the increased speed with high versatility and with increased resolution and contrast quality (250 lines per millimeter -- and climbing -- versus the 50 to 100 lpmm that others boast) of its imaging. With electronic processing translated instantaneously into computer memory, reproduction of the holographic image is possible in real time. The effect is not unlike the technical leap achieved by graduating from movie film to videotape.
NASA, for one, is intrigued with the implications of such rarefied technology. Out of 977 proposals submitted to the space agency last year under its Small Business Innovation Research program, Holotronics's was 1 of only 102 to draw Phase I funding. This $50,000 contract, spread over six months, "seeks systematically to approach the desired microsecond response time without compromise of the other parameters." A Phase II award would supply as much as an additional $500,000 to build a single Optical Tunnel Array unit to NASA's specifications. After that, funding will depend on Holotronics's ability to capitalize for commercial production.
One reason behind NASA's interest is the problem of having to process orbital imaging and telemetry data by beaming the raw numbers back to huge earthbound computers. With an optical computing system employing Kirk's SLM, much of the same number crunching could happen right on board, using little power and less cargo area: a nine-volt battery, Kirk reckons, hooked up to a 64K microprocessor-in a shoebox-size space. Optically processed, he says, "a million-point matrix-matrix multiplication sequence could be done several orders of magnitude [faster] than today's state-of-the-art digital electronic computing. Processing speeds are approaching the speed of light." Even Tom Swift rarely dreamed on such a scale.
But Ron Kirk thinks big, or rather, very, very small. He says that if he had been more aware of the technical difficulties his competitors were having, he would have been wasting his time solving their problems, not coming up with fresh approaches of his own. In more philosophical moments, he propounds on "eight-dimensional reality" and his own ability to conceptualize "negative vectors," both as an inventor and a businessman. "Anything you do plots its own reciprocal value," is the way he puts it. Roughly translated, this means looking at a minus and seeing the immediate, corresponding plus. Or vice-versa. Either way, it is a talent closely identified with genius -- even genius of the nonfiction variety.
"I worked closely with Edwin Land for eight years," says Holotronics's patent attorney, Gerald Smith, referring to the retired avatar of Polaroid Corp. "Ron Kirk is of the same order of genius that Land was. His mind is unique. The fact that he's totally self-taught in some of the most esoteric areas of technology makes him all the more amazing to me."
Smith was not the first outsider to attempt a sober analysis of Kirk's design. In 1981, Ron pitched Battelle Memorial Institute, the renowned Columbus, Ohio, research firm, on the idea of lab-testing his theory. About 40 years ago, Battelle had performed the research readying another then-obscure technology for the marketplace: xerography. But Battelle was not exactly accustomed to dealing with small-town fire captains. Then again, Kirk was not a fellow easily daunted, either. He arranged a session with the lab's Optical Sciences staff to outline his theory. After a three-hour blackboard dissertation ("they told me later that it was the first time they'd ever sat straight through lunch," Kirk says), agreement was reached on a $12,000 feasibility study. It was at this point that Holotronics incorporated, and another important chapter in the unfolding saga was written.
"Firemen are like little old ladies: They gossip all the time," says Mike Jeffery, 17 years a member of the Findlay firefighter's corps and a colleague of Kirk's for the past 9. Jeffery, known as "Moose" to his friends, has what you might call a low-investment profile when it comes to managing his fiscal affairs. Nevertheless, he says, "I'd heard about Ron when he was still over at the east side station. He had quite a reputation. The kind of guy who -- if you'll pardon the expression -- ate, drank, and screwed electronics. I mean, he was always messing around with TVs, radios amplifiers, what have you. Now, I'm not much of a gambler. Basically, I like putting my money into things I can put my hands on. But when this stock deal came along, I thought, hell, why not take a chance just once in your life?"
The chance Moose Jeffery decided to bet on was a 40,000-share, non-SEC-sanctioned offering of Holotronics common stock, at $50 a share. In certain professional circles around Findlay, it was the talk of the town.
"Lots of guys were whispering about it around the station house," reports Jack Oakman Jr., a policeman who moonlights as a security guard at a Findlay McDonald's to make ends meet. "To be honest with you, I had no idea what a hologram was. But my friends in the fire department, over at the east side station, convinced me to go to the first shareholders' meeting, and I was real impressed. Ron kept saying he didn't want us putting anything into his company that we couldn't afford to lose. He was very low-key about the whole thing."
Like Jeffery, Oakman had never owned a stock certificate. He dug down deep and bought 6. Feeling reckless, he bought 4 more. By this time, about half of Findlay's police force and even more of its firefighters held lottery tickets in the Great Holotronics Sweepstakes. When Battelle published its first glowing report on Kirk's SLM, all caution went to the wind, and Jack Oakman sprang for another 14 shares. "Heck," he smiles today, "I even bought shares for three of my buddies when they were a little short on cash. We were getting real excited."
Despite such enthusiasm, the operative word over at Errett's Car Waxing annex was caution. Earlier that year, Holotronics had realized it needed outside financing to get past the theory stage. Yet Kirk, as he admits, was "paranoid" about losing control of the company, and therefore wary of both joint ventures and venture capitalists. It didn't help the atmosphere any that Marathon Oil Co., Findlay's largest employer (Marathon is based here, with a payroll of some 2,700) and the bedrock of its economic foundation, had been involved in a well-publicized takeover bid by United States Steel Corp. during this same period.
With Kirk as point man, the dominant force behind the company's drive to woo small investors -- and its hope to generate cash flow with some military contracts -- became George P. West. West, who by chance had been visiting his mother in Findlay, responded to an advertisement Holotronics ran in the Findlay newspaper for "qualified personnel." Kirk liked his resume: former head of the Canadian subsidiary of Joy Manufacturing Co. (1,000 employees, $40 million a year); former head of the Carribbean operation for Mead Johnson & Co.; executive positions with Maremont, Crane, and Honeywell. For a one-time ad in The Findlay Courier, it was not a bad talent haul. A lot of positive vectors there, or something like that.
"I never felt attracting funds would be a problem," says Kirk. "My feeling was, hey, if you've got the technology, you'll get the money. I'm not what you'd call overly conservative, either. When we set up an operating budget, the obvious strategy was to streamline as much as possible so we could conserve our cash for research. I don't think like that. I said we had to commit ourselves to more research than we could afford to if we actually had the money. Why? Because if you struggle to work within your known limits, all you wind up proving is that you can keep your doors open a little longer by conserving your assets. And I don't believe in limits. In fact, setting goals is almost an antireligious thing for me. Setting goals means setting limits, and I'm very uncomfortable with that. It goes back to what I was saying about operating in all eight dimensions of reality simultaneously. I'm afraid I drove old George pretty crazy with all this, but that's how I work."
Says West, "I guess I've been trained too long in traditional thinking to see eye to eye with Ron's philosophy. At a certain point, though, I had to recognize its worth and go along with it. We battle, sure, but he doesn't force me to comply. And he doesn't lose very often, either. When you've been around the business world as long as I have, it's a little difficult to be lieve that a 30-year-old with only a limited academic background could do what Ron's done anyway. Once Battelle said it was for real, I knew we were 90% down the road. The big question was, could we make sure the company survived financially through the early stages? I mean, it's nice to believe the money will just roll right in, but I'm the type of guy who feels a whole lot more comfortable if you go out and make it happen."
He smiles at Kirk much as a tolerant father would whose son (is that you in the basement, Tom?) has just come upstairs announcing the discovery of an antigravity spray.
"I've watched what's happened in the technology field for 30 years now," West continues. "Typically, the biggest failures have come when the entrepreneur has stopped pushing technical advances and concentrated on the business end of things instead. Look at [Adam] Osborne, to cite one example. By engineering our stock sale, we created a moral obligation to our shareholders to push ahead and see things through. None of us took salaries last year, because I didn't think it would be fair to our investors. So the real risk going into this -- and it's a risk the NASA contract has pretty much obliterated -- is that this damn thing wouldn't work. It does work. We have the credibility we need now.
"Of course," he adds, "it wouldn't help if Ron got run over by a firetruck, either."
Indeed, it would not. Which is why more than one Findlay fireman has confessed that when Kirk gets around burning buildings these days, he tends to draw just a jot of extra attention. Not an armed escort, but a little extra concern. Fighting fires is high-risk work, after all.
But then, so is launching new technology companies. "A lot of my old friends said we were crazy to go up against a Hughes or a Litton," West avers. "Those guys have many man-years and tens of millions of dollars invested in this field, not to mention annual budgets in the $2-million range. They said we couldn't possibly have the funds or facilities to compete. I said they were right. Only, we had Ron."
"Yeah, and as long as I don't know what we can't do, I know we're all right," chimes in Kirk, poring over plans for the new Holotronics office for which ground is to be broken this spring. The new headquarters, which will incorporate a clean room, optics lab, and engineering and office space for 22 people, will eventually be equipped to manufacture systems that use Kirk's Optical Tunnel Array. Other joint commercial ventures are relegated to the realm of possibility.
Kirk swings his 1979 Lincoln Town Car down Main Street. Past the Marathon Oil building and the baronial homes where many of its top executives reside. Through a public park by the banks of the Blanchard River, where Tell Taylor wrote the music and lyrics of the classic "Down By the Old Mill Stream." Kirk is recalling his decision to move back to Findlay eight years ago. His father, he says, was overjoyed when he passed the fireman's exam. His other interests -- the electronics stuff -- were "way over his head." But Findlay, a big-company city with a small-town ambiance, held no particular romance for the returning son. "Coming from Toledo," he says, "I could see right away how clean and nice it seemed. But then, most plastic structures look clean and nice." His words are tinged with the same cool cynicism he usually reserves for the paper-pushers and big-oil bigshots that are the bane of his existence.
It is a Monday in November: a day off from his captain's duties at the north side station. Findlay is going about its usual business as it usually does: quietly. On other days off, Kirk is more apt to be in Washington, D.C., conferring with intelligence officials about plugging his SLM into missile guidance systems, than dropping by the firehouse for a cup of coffee with the boys; but he is willing to indulge a visitor's whim. And yes, he acknowledges the "schizophrenia" of his two careers dealing with pixels one day, fire axes the next. He says it is a situation that will soon resolve itself by his leaving the department. Not because of the threat to his well being, but because of the time commitment Holotronics now demands. He admits that living two lives is becoming increasingly distracting.
"More and more," he sighs, "I find myself having to be two completely different people. In the station, you can't talk over peoples' heads. Or down to them, either. You're part of a team here. One of the guys. Then I go to Washington to talk about [Department of Defense] contracts, and I find I not only have to reinvent my future, I have to reinvent my past."
A fiction writer rummaging around for thematic nuggets would find much of richness in Findlay's own past. A century ago, the discovery of natural-gas deposits turned Findlay into a town aflame with entrepreneurial heat. "The Brilliant City," they called it then, and the Midwest -- indeed, the country -- had not seen anything like it before. One well, the great Karg Well, pumped out 12 million cubic feet of gas a day, the highest flow rate in the world. Gas became so plentiful that Main Street was lit with roaring methane torches, and any company willing to move here could have free fuel, free light, even free building sites for the asking. So many did that land values quintupled in a single year. It was an era of almost profligate indulgence. When the Karg ignited, locals say, it spewed forth a flame so high and so hot you could spread a blanket in the grass on a January evening and picnic with the family by gaslight. The flame burned for four months before anyone bothered extinguishing it. Soon afterward, the gas dried up; and Findlay's dreams, like fine soot, settled back to earth. Only Marathon's arrival, in 1905, would rekindle the economic hopes that have carried the town through most of the 20th century.
And now comes Kirk and his spatial light modulator. By chance or design, the peculiar financing of Holotronics has rigged a very interesting deal.
"I get the feeling," says Jack Oakman, "that if Holotronics ever strikes it rich, this town will have to do a whole lot of hiring [in its police and fire departments] all at once."
"Do we dream?" says Moose Jeffery. "Hell yes, we dream. We dream about buying the station, locking the chief inside, and setting the whole thing on fire. We dream about the day we won't have to work two jobs to support our families, or scrounge from paycheck to paycheck." He pauses. "Look, there are a lot of public officials around here who are pretty small in their thinking. They see Ron getting all this publicity, and they resent it. I know at least some of them are thinking, 'I hope the little son of a bitch fails so we can take this Holotronics stuff and shove it right up his butt.' In three years, if this company's what we think it is, they'll have so many public employees bailing out you'll think somebody yelled 'Fire!' in a crowded theater."
It will be, at minimum, an interesting sequel in the continuing series about a boyish inventor who turns the technocrats on their ear. In the latest volume, our hero reinvents a laser light source and turns his town once again into the Brilliant City. Call it Ron Kirk and His Spatial Light Modulator. In Findlay, it already promises to be a best-seller.