How challenges at work led to preventing blindness for millions

In 1965, a young Dr. Jim Hobart and Gene Watson tried to convince their Silicon Valley employer, Spectra-Physics, to enter the laser business.

They were turned down and immediately resigned. In 1966, they persuaded six other founders to start Coherent Inc. For startup capital, the group managed to scrounge up $10,000. During an initial meeting, a would-be founder was asked about laboratory arrangements.

He replied, “I think you’re all crazy!” as he walked out of the room.

The company started in the laundry room of Watson’s Palo Alto home to take advantage of a 220-volt outlet. Their first laser was built with whatever useful materials were available including aluminum siding from a building supply store.

The first test of the laser was on a neighbor’s garage door across the street — the dark brown spot on the wooden garage door is still a neighborhood mystery.

Within three months, the fledgling Coherent team had built a laser to show off at the West Com trade fair. The lasers were the first of their kind and were purchased by many different types of companies just to see if they could find a practical use for them.

Hobart commented that this group of motivated people produced their first laser in three months. At a conventional company, the same product would have taken three years.

A new idea that would change lives

Watson left Coherent after a couple of years, but soon after the company’s founding, a group of scientists from nearby Stanford University contacted them with the proposal to test a laser on eye-related diseases. This cooperative experimentation led to Coherent producing the Model 880 ion laser.

“We didn’t do a formal market analysis. We thought that this could be a good product so we went ahead and made them,” Hobart reflected.

The main disease that the 880 treated was diabetic retinopathy. In 2008, over 4 million people in the U.S. had this disease. Before the application of laser treatments, the odds were that if you had diabetic retinopathy, you had a 50 percent chance of going blind within 10 years.

Today, those odds have been reduced to 1 percent.

Hobart was ousted from his position as CEO and chairman of the board during a 1996 corporate coup. In 1997, Hobart formed his own company, Sciton Technologies, a manufacturer of medical and surgical lasers.

Currently, Hobart is the CEO of Sciton Inc., a privately owned medical device company established by Hobart and Daniel Negus. The company provides advanced laser and light sources to medical professionals worldwide with direct sales forces in the U.S. and Japan and distributor partners in more than 45 countries. ●

John McLaughlin is president of the Silicon Valley Historical Association