photo of Matt Weed in Luminar shop

[Image: Courtesy of Matt Weed]

OSA Senior Member Matt Weed, director of technology strategy at Luminar Technologies, Orlando, Fla., USA, has helped get three startups off the ground since receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Central Florida in 2013. OPN spoke with Weed about his unique career path and what it takes to succeed in the startup sphere.

For more on entrepreneurship, read “Pursuing an Entrepreneurial Vision,” OPN, October 2019.

You dove straight into the startup world after getting your Ph.D. What was this journey like?

I ultimately chose startups for several reasons—it was a little bit serendipity, a little bit the best option for me, and a little bit that it was just fundamentally interesting work.

I started to get interested in communications and business as an undergraduate. What I saw in some of those classes, and what hooked me, was that throughout time and industry, there’s this systemic communication barrier that exists between technical people and nontechnical people who are in leadership and business. For whatever reason, this hit me as a place I wanted to focus on in my career.

When I was graduating with my Ph.D., I spoke with OSA Fellow Jason Eichenholz, who’s been my mentor and boss for all of these companies I’ve worked for—Open Photonics Inc. (OPI), AireHealth, an OPI spinout that makes a portable nebulizer for respiratory care, and then Luminar, which makes sensory technologies like lidar for cars. I was asking for his advice on job hunting and he told me he was starting OPI, so I began helping Jason with some early projects.

Originally, Jason’s vision for OPI was essentially a photonics consultancy—doing assessments and early validation of disruptive technologies for companies. And that ended up pivoting quite a bit. OPI ended up doing early-stage product development for companies.

Luminar was just another project at OPI in the early days. OPI developed the early optical hardware and then OPI was more formally acquired by Luminar. The entire OPI team was working full-time on Luminar anyway because it was just blowing up and growing so quickly.

And all of that happened in just six years! Did you ever consider taking a more traditional industry path?

After graduation, I was applying to jobs and looking for interesting roles in interesting companies—which is a lot harder than you might think, to find both of those things at the same place. I had always considered going entrepreneurial, but in a lot of ways I think what I’ve done is “half and half” entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial, because at OPI I was enabling existing companies to be successful with new technology.

From my perspective, it’s been the best of both worlds. I didn’t have the extreme upside of pure ownership of the company, but I had a good position, less risk and a lot of learning upsides. In retrospect, one of the things that has been most rewarding, even at times when this career track was very stressful, has been the number of different hats I’ve been able to wear in these companies. It has given me a career’s worth of perspective in the different types of roles and functions within a company.

In the early days, how did you help to build up these companies?

In building up a company, I think the biggest thing is a constant hour-to-hour optimization and prioritization of what you spend your time on. You have to prioritize and optimize basically on the fly, and as a team. When you grow past a few people, then you can break up different things and you can actually do a lot more work in parallel. But that growth stage is a real challenge.

One interesting thing is studying the way that these different tasks within a company should fit together and be supportive of the total goal. A lot of times when you run a more traditional track, you end up in, say, the engineering department, and the priorities that you see within that department are your whole life. Working in this sort of environment, you get to see the big picture.

At a startup, you’re not just discovering physics. You’re also discovering organizational physics.

What are some other challenges that you faced in those early stages?

One thing is balance—something as simple as making sure you can meet payroll as a company. Are you raising and/or selling enough to have the right cash flow?

We’re there to try to create value, but we’ve got to pay these people who see that vision with us. When there are issues in cash flow, and there almost always are at various stages in a startup, that’s one of the biggest things to manage because you’re responsible for the people you bring on.

OPI was always very bootstrapped, and Jason and I didn’t get paid a lot in the early days. It was challenging, but it was risk management. And we’ve had people, over time, for whom this kind of risk profile wasn’t appropriate. For example, for a new parent without a strong second income, it’s a bit more risky. And that’s totally reasonable.

For readers who are interested in pursuing a similar career track, what are some qualities that benefit someone in the startup world?

The real upside—your payment for working crazy hours and dealing with stress—is what you learn. That’s how I’ve always rationalized the 80-hour work weeks and spoiled vacations and things like that.

One red flag is that a lot of people want jobs that don’t follow them home. If that’s your perspective on a job, which is a totally reasonable perspective to have, then startups are probably not the right direction for you.

If you still have that academic love for learning but want to pursue products, then I think that’s a really positive perspective to take to a startup. Use that as fuel to take on new things, learn more and find your niche.

For me, that’s what’s kept me going. I have never found something that seemed more interesting than what I’m doing right now. And that’s big. That’s the core promise of startups—you’re doing something that is cutting edge, which appeals to a sense of discovery.