Any gardener knows that a plant can’t thrive in the absence of light.

If the same is true for startups, you could say Olga Pawluczyk is a CEO with a green thumb. And she knows all about the power of light.

Since 2010, her staff at P&P Optica has more than tripled in size, thanks to the high-performance spectroscopy systems it produces at its Waterloo laboratories, where blue laser beams punctuate the red glow from the ceiling lights.

Spectrometers use light to analyse the chemical makeup of substances. They can be used to match paint to a colour chip, scan liquids during airport security checks, test blood and screen fruit for pesticides, among many other duties.

“A spectrometer is a much more sensitive eyeball, essentially,” Pawluczyk says.

What differentiates P&P’s technology is its highly advanced efficiency and accuracy, which won high praise from R&D Magazine this year.

In honouring the company with an R&D 100 award – the equivalent of an Oscar for innovation – the magazine said P&P’s new spectrometer “has greatly expanded the applications potential for optical spectrometry,” and performs “approximately 20 times better than the closest competing technologies.”

P&P’s growth followed quickly on the heels of grants from FedDev Ontario and the Ontario Centres of Excellence, which were crucial in enabling Pawluczyk and her staff to develop the new technology and put it in the hands of top scientists.

I sat down recently with Pawluczyk, who joined Communitech’s board last year, for a wide-ranging chat about everything from spectroscopy to entrepreneurship to the low number of female tech CEOs.

Q – Tell me about P&P Optica; where it’s been and where it is now.

A – The company started in ’95 in Quebec City as an optics consulting company, and right now we are the fourth iteration of P&P Optica.

Really it started in 2004 in the form it is at right now.

We are 20 people, plus or minus two – we’re always in flux a little bit with co-op students and whatnot – and have grown significantly in the last couple of years.

We went from six people in 2010 to 20 now.

Essentially, because it started as a family-owned business, we developed the technology on a shoestring budget, and once we saw traction in the market, we decided to turn it into a startup, bring in outside investors and actually grow to match the need of the market.

So, we established a big manufacturing laboratory here in Waterloo by getting a FedDev loan for that, and that’s sort of where the new chapter of P&P has been growing.

Because we’ve grown so fast, revenue is still in the red, but we’re hoping to reach positive cash flow sometime next year, and we seem to be on target.

We’ve grown our sales over three times in one year, so it’s a very exciting period for the company. Everything that we were, we’re not anymore, and we’ve changed quite a bit.

Q – How did the company come into being?

A – My father and my brother worked at the National Optics Institute, or INO, in Quebec City. Both were optics people, and they actually had an idea for measuring length of wire much more precisely, using optical methods as opposed to measuring the wire by weight.

If you think about it, if you have an error rate of one per cent, and somebody buys 100 metres, you have to give them 101 metres just to make sure that your error is covered. So, if you reduce your error to 0.1 per cent, you just have to give them 100 metres and a couple of centimetres, which adds up really quickly when you’re making copper wire.

So, that was the first technology, and that didn’t pan out too well because the company that was purchasing these parts went under.

My brother and dad decided to continue on, so slowly but surely, as optics people, they started designing things and went into fibre optics.

And then my dad moved to Ontario, and the company he worked at needed a very high-performance optical spectrometer.

My dad knew some people in Poland who could produce things for us, and he went there and set up a laboratory to make what are called diffraction gratings – essentially, glorified prisms.

We make spectrometers; spectrometers measure how light interacts with things and measures chemistry based on that. Gratings split light into multiple colours; the rainbow effect of a prism.

So, my dad set up a lab in Europe and we started selling these really exotic optical components made in Europe, and saw how incredible a performance advantage they can give to anybody who uses spectrometers.

I graduated from my master’s and said, ‘Well, if my brother and father are working there, why shouldn’t I work there?’ So, I joined the company as well, in about 2000.

We said, ‘Hold on a second; we could actually design our own spectrometer.’ We had a lot of people around us who were excellent in optics and they helped us to design a system. We made a patent application, and that was sort of the beginning of where we are right now.

We were selling one component at a time, seeing how great it makes somebody else’s product, so we decided to make it our own.

The Polish lab was very limited. It was great for making one-off systems where we could sell maybe 200 systems a year, so we decided, ‘Let’s bring it to Canada and set it up the way my dad always wanted to set it up.’

And we did; we built the laboratory and it’s now fully operational. It’s the first year that it’s been operational.

We started selling our gratings, made in Canada, in April.

Q – What is the involvement of your dad and brother now?

A – My dad actually was always just on the sidelines and helping with ideas, and in 2004 he joined it, and my brother had also developed a large part of P&P in fibre optics for spectroscopy.

We decided that, because we were selling spectrometers and fibre optics to spectroscopy companies, that wasn’t very great, so my brother is now doing fibres at FiberTech Optica, and myself and my dad are running P&P Optica.

Q – Does P&P refer to your surname, and the two of you?

A – Actually, when they started the company, it was my brother, Rafal Pawluczyk, and Pierre Pelletier, another guy who worked in the company. So it was Pawluczyk and Pelletier, or in Quebec, Pelletier and Pawluczyk.

And it kind of stuck, because, why not? A lot of people have crazy names, so we have a crazy name with P&P Optica.

Q – What is a spectrometer and why is it important?

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