Inventor Joseph Lindmayer, who built the solar energy company Solarex, has turned his attention to photons, the building blocks of light. One goal: lightning-fast computers.

LIGHTING THE WAY

September 23, 1991|By Leslie Cauley

Talk about good timing.

Joseph Lindmayer bailed out of Communications Satellite Corp. to start Solarex Corp., a solar energy company, just months before the United States was hit with an oil embargo by Middle East power brokers. The 1973 embargo put the country face-to-face with its first major energy crisis in modern history.

As oil prices skyrocketed and snaking gasoline lines became a nightly staple on the evening news, a suddenly energy-conscious America started taking a second look at alternative fuel sources, including solar energy.

"Timing is everything, and our timing couldn't have been more perfect," says Dr. Lindmayer, who started Solarex on a shoestring budget of $200,000.

As one of the few companies on the politically correct side of the energy problem, Solarex flourished throughout the '70s, attracting the attention of Congress, Wall Street and a bevy of corporate suitors.

Fate smiled at Dr. Lindmayer again in 1983, when Amoco bought out Solarex for $25 million. Almost before the ink was dry on the agreement, oil prices plunged and gasoline lines vanished. The oil crisis ended almost abruptly as it had started.

So, too, did America's interest in solar energy. Once the darling of Wall Street, alternative-energy companies such as Solarex lost favor among investors. And federal funding for solar research, which had ballooned during the oil crisis, all but dried up.

"I seem to have a knack for good timing," says Dr. Lindmayer, who became a millionaire overnight as a result of the buyout. "Sometimes it's absolutely frightening."

It remains to be seen whether Dr. Lindmayer can beat the odds with his current business ventures, three high-tech companies based in Rockville. The companies -- Quantex Corp., Optex Corp. and Photonex Corp. -- are engaged in the heady world of "photonics," the scientific term for the use of photons, the building blocks of light.

It's a promising field, but Dr. Lindmayer faces major obstacles, including financing, competition from major companies -- and his own headstrong style.

The Lindmayer companies, which together have about 65 employees, are independent from each other in their financing, risks and business objectives. But they share the vision of their founder, who believes photonics is the key to bridging the gap between scientific imagination and commercial reality.

"Obviously, there is more and more talk about it," Dr. Lindmayer says of his lifelong passion for photonics. "If you can use light for communication and computation, you will be much better off. But there are not enough devices to do things with this light. . . . It's like talking about a solid-state computer and not having a solid-state transistor. This is the problem."

The photon business has been very good to Dr. Lindmayer.

Buoyed by his Solarex earnings, Dr. Lindmayer dines out nightly, travels first-class and shops for custom suits in Geneva. His palatial home in Potomac is tended by a butler.

One of Washington's most eligible bachelors, Dr. Lindmayer is often seen squiring beautiful women around town in his burgundy Jaguar, one of two luxury cars he owns. Though Dr. Lindmayer's confidants say he prefers the night life in Europe, when he's in town he is a frequent visitor of the River Club, a tony nightclub in Washington that caters to the international jet-set crowd.

That is not to say Dr. Lindmayer is a frivolous man. Far from it. He is an acknowledged genius in the world of photonics, a technological Renaissance man who sees the world through a different set of eyes and ears.

Indeed, nobody doubts the Hungarian-born scientist-turned-entrepreneur has the technical knowledge to turn photonic fantasies -- computers that run at the speed of light and night-vision devices that turn the blackest night into a sunny day -- into commercial reality.

Educated in electrical engineering at the Technical University of Budapest, Dr. Lindmayer has a a master's degree in physics from Williams College and a Ph.D. from the University of Aachen. He has been head of physics research at Sprague Electric and COMSAT and a lecturer in physics at Yale.

Dr. Lindmayer also wrote the book -- literally -- on solid-state electronics. The textbook, considered a classic, was used to teach graduate students until the early 1980s. He wrote the book 1965 at the age of 33.

But timing, as evidenced by Solarex's meteoric success, can be critical to the success of any business venture. And it isn't clear that the market is ready for what Dr. Lindmayer has to offer. Many inventions, such as his erasable optical disc, make hay of accepted industry standards.

Even Dr. Lindmayer acknowledges that some of his current work is so far ahead of the technological curve that it may take a while for the market to catch on -- and for investors to catch up.

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