Simin Cai photo

Courtesy of Simin Cai

OPN has been talking with members of the optics and photonics community in a variety of areas to get their perspective on how the COVID-19 crisis has affected their lives and work, and what the pandemic means for photonics. On 20 April, we spoke with OIDA Council Chair Simin Cai, president and CEO of Go!Foton, a global photonics company with a strong presence in the telecommunications industry.

Tell us a bit about yourself and about Go!Foton.

I was born and raised in Shanghai, and I came to the United States for graduate studies. While I was still in my Ph.D. program, I started working in industry … In 1998, I joined the wholly owned subsidiary of a Japanese conglomerate, NSG America, in New Jersey … I was promoted to be the president of NSG America just at the beginning of the tech bubble burst in 2001.

We went through all this trouble after the bubble burst, and in 2009 we did a management buyout to create GoFoton! Since then, I have been working to grow the company.

Could you talk about when you first heard about this coronavirus, and started thinking about how it might affect your business?

We have a subsidiary in Nanjing, China, so I think I learned about the outbreak in China from them. We also have a plant in the Philippines. So we had a little bit of early awareness, so to speak, that this will spread. Of course, we had no idea at that time about how extensive the scope can be.

What were some of the first steps that you had to take in response to the emergence of this virus? How did your response evolve?

Especially considering our subsidiary in China, the first thing we thought about was about the safety and the security of our people over there. We started working from home; we tried to put everything remote, and we tried to gather some facemasks for our employees there. We considered the safety, security and the wellness of our employees first, as well as our other stakeholders in the business.

On the supply-chain side, because our Philippines plant does have a supply chain extended in China, we worked to secure the supply chain inside of China and also tried to find alternatives outside of China. In the meantime, we tried to keep our operation in the East running—although probably on a much smaller scale—especially as we are considered an essential business as a Tier 1 network contractor.

Finding alternate supply chains and things of that nature is always a challenge—especially on such short notice. The good thing is that we do have some qualified vendors outside of China, so we connected with them and tried to keep them as an alternative.

Most of our suppliers are not necessarily in the epicenter in China. We do have one key supplier in Wuhan, but they also have some other facilities outside of that one, which was helpful. Overall, so far, our supply chain in China has been performing pretty well.

What sort of geographical areas and what sort of business sectors would you say have been most affected by this?

Geographically speaking, I think the impact is like a wave—different areas at different times. Of course, it started in China, then our facility in the Philippines, but now it seems like Japan is hit pretty hard. And we do have a facility north of Tokyo. In China, now things are starting up again. Even our supplier in Wuhan is resuming production and shipping again—so it’s like a wave.

As for sectors, our key vertical market we serve is in the telecommunication/optical communication area. So, at least so far, we haven't seen any slowing down on the demand side, and in some areas we’re actually seeing some growth. That’s because a lot of people are working from home, I think, and the demand for bandwidth is increasing.

We also serve some of the medical device sector—although we didn’t see much of that increase because, I guess, we are not directly involved in COVID-19-related issues. We still work with our former parent company, NSG, on some projects, and they do have a PCR [polymerase chain reaction, used in COVID-19 diagnostics] device. I've learned that they have a lot of increased interest about their PCR device, which is directly related to this pandemic.

Also we serve the defense sector, and we did receive a letter to tell us that we’re essential and we need to keep open. But our overall revenue percentage in that area is minimal.

How has this affected you personally, in your work life and at home?

Scatterings image

[Image: Alessia Kirkland]

Well, the first thing is that there’s no more travel. I travel a lot, and my last trip was to OFC in early March, since I serve as the chair of OIDA. (We actually pulled out of OFC as a company exhibitor, though.) Since then, there has been no travel.  

It's a different lifestyle for me. I actually come to the office every day from 8:30 to 5:30 or 6 o'clock—that’s actually early for me to leave the office compared with when I was traveling. To some extent, it gives me back a routine.

Being an essential business, we try to keep the operation open during business hours. We do not have manufacturing here, but we do have some shipping and receiving to support a telecom provider’s business. So we have a couple of employees who come in just to make sure that the essential things are done.

I suppose you have a skeleton crew working out of the office right now, so you’re all fairly spread apart and distancing from each other.

The office, I think, is about 15,000 square feet, and we usually have no more than three people here at a time. Since we are so spread apart, we don’t normally wear masks at the office; although we have some masks leftover from when we were gathering them for our China subsidiary.

Also, we had an employee a couple of years ago who decided to change careers to become a nurse, and he just got his RN registration six months ago or so. He told us his hospital had a mask shortage, so we donated those remaining face masks to the hospital. But we still keep a few around the office, and now our China facility is sending masks to us.

You were a panelist on an OIDA webinar recently about navigating your business out of the COVID-19 storm. What will some of the business challenges be?

The immediate challenge for people in the optics and photonics community, except for those serving the essential business or communication side, will be that demand will have a pretty significant drop, and then the cash flow, supply chain and employee issues and so on. The OIDA Council wants to help our member community to address those challenges—that's why we started this webinar series every Thursday.

My suggestion during the webinar was to encourage companies to engage with the community and engage with their employees. And then to work on collecting the so called “collective wisdom” within our community to address those challenges.

We’re also trying to invite subject experts—such as the lawyers, the accountants, the business turnaround people—to talk about how to address those aspects of the crisis when they come. Because most of our people in this community are engineers, so they use an engineering approach to address the problem.

You’ve described quite a few immediate and near-term challenges facing optics industries during this time. What about long-term planning?

Long-term planning is difficult. But, on the other hand, I think you always have to do planning work, even when the planning work is how to plan for uncertainty, how to plan for a chaotic situation.

This is challenging because the crux of people's fear comes from uncertainty. You just don't know what's going to happen. And you need to prepare for the worst, and then work for the best.

There is a quote: “Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half the sorrow.” I think that this applies to fear as well—a shared fear is only half the fear, so we just need to engage as a community and to work together and find the collective wisdom to address the problems we’re facing.