Larry Stack of Photonis Defense: “Our big idea is to enable everyone to see at night”

Our big idea is to enable everyone to see at night. Historically, only the military had the technology to do that. Sure, there are cheap versions of night vision goggles, but their nothing like what the military has. The government has used night vision goggles for years. In their desire to get better technology, they […]

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Our big idea is to enable everyone to see at night. Historically, only the military had the technology to do that. Sure, there are cheap versions of night vision goggles, but their nothing like what the military has. The government has used night vision goggles for years. In their desire to get better technology, they became too rigid in their written definition (requirements) of their needs. What we wanted to do is bring some common sense into military technology.

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Larry Stack. Larry spent the first 25 years of his life flying jet aircraft from aircraft carriers and has the spent the last 20 years as an entrepreneur and as CEO in the software, engineering, and industrial manufacturing sectors. Currently, Larry is CEO of Photonis Defense.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I went to college to become a graphic designer or marketing specialist with a geology minor. I love the arts and have always been fascinated with rocks, nature, and the Earth.

On geology fieldtrip to Death Valley, California, I saw two jets dog fighting above me. There’s military space near the area that is used as a practice facility. This got me thinking: what does it take to become a fighter pilot? It was 1975, the end of the Vietnam War, and nobody wanted to join the military. A stigma had been attached to military veterans because of the war.

I investigated the military’s aviation program anyway and found that the competition to enter the training program was fierce. There was a 75% failure rate in their testing program just to obtain an application. Then if you are one of the lucky few accepted, 60% did not make it through the Aviation Candidate Officer Program to become an officer; another 30% failed flight school. Out of the 100 people who initially applied, very few earned their wings. Challenge accepted.

The military community is amazingly diverse; there are people from all walks of life. Officers, however, must have a university degree. At the time, an engineering degree (any discipline) was preferred. In close second was mathematics. I was in the arts. Challenge accepted.

I quickly found out that the military is a very level playing field. They don’t care about your background, race, etc. They only care about getting the job done and completing the mission at hand. There are a lot of Type A personalities — no BS and very solution oriented. It was perfect, even for an art major.

Once I graduated from flight school and entered “The Fleet” I found out that a Naval Aviation Squadron is just like any microcosm of a large organization. Within each squadron there are a variety of departments, each run by a Department Head with reporting organizations; for example, Administration, Legal, Maintenance (with several subcategories), Operations, Training, etc. It takes a lot to maintain one squadron of jet aircraft on an aircraft carrier and there were 10 squadrons.

In my opinion, there is no finer organization than the military to help you obtain a varied background and expertise in a multitude of areas that can also be applied to the civilian workforce. There is one exception: you just can’t order people around in civilian life the way you can in the military simply because in the military you face many life-or-death situations that can’t afford the time for protracted debate.

After 25 years in the military, I had to figure out what I would do when I retired. Like everything else in my life, I decided that the best option was to do something that took me out of my comfort zone. No flying job for me, so I joined a commercial software company.

Here I learned about software engineering and IT architecture from a managerial aspect. I learned how applications were developed from requirements to use cases and beyond. Every aspect of the task had to be documented thoroughly so there was no scope creep. Our focus was ensuring that we got a product out that works!

Eventually, I moved up the ranks and was running the company. After it sold, I started working for a non-profit organization (NPO). I soaked in everything I could about what a NPO was, how they operated, how they raised funds, how they marketed themselves, etc.

My next move was running a manufacturing company whose technologies I knew nothing about. Again, challenge accepted! I applied my theory that most problems are people problems, and I managed my team with great success. From there I transitioned to another CEO position in a chemical manufacturing job — nothing to do with flying, software, or engineering but plenty of people problems.

Present day, I am CEO of Photonis Defense.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

All jet aircraft are equipped with ejection seats to help protect the pilot. When the ejection handle is pulled, if the canopy isn’t jettisoned, you’re going through the glass. All pilots train for this situation, but you don’t perform the operation because it could kill you (and you’d ruin a perfectly good jet). When you pull the handle and initiate ejection you incur 22x more weight than your actual body weight.

The day came when I had to use the ejection handle. Again, you train for this, but it doesn’t make it any less scary. I was propelled out of my aircraft through the canopy glass. As my parachute opened, I saw the aircraft explode. The fireball was so intense that it sucked in everything around it including my parachute and myself. Thankfully, this didn’t last long, and I was able escape to safety.

If I had not pulled the handle when I did, I estimate there were about .5 seconds left before the upward velocity vector of the ejection seat was negated by the downward velocity victory of the aircraft. 0.5 seconds between life and death.

That experience caused me to put life into perspective. You tend to look at what you are going through and evaluate situations differently. Should I really be angry? Should I really stress? Is this truly worth it?

I have learned to calm down. There are times you must get excited or agitated because not all situations can be broad brushed; however, you must choose wisely.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

There are two guiding philosophies that I follow:

  1. In general, don’t sweat the small stuff. Everything is small stuff when you look at what could be.
  2. I have learned that most problems are people problems and can be talked through.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Our big idea is to enable everyone to see at night. Historically, only the military had the technology to do that. Sure, there are cheap versions of night vision goggles, but their nothing like what the military has. The government has used night vision goggles for years. In their desire to get better technology, they became too rigid in their written definition (requirements) of their needs. What we wanted to do is bring some common sense into military technology.

The current standard in night vision technology is the 18mm image intensifier tube. To house this technology, the form factor becomes very clunky and heavy. Current night vision googles are so heavy it’s like having a two-pound roast in front of your head with a two-pound roast in the back to help counterbalance the weight. This added weight creates a huge stress to a person’s neck and shoulders and can cause a lot of other issues in terms of health, general stress, etc.

My company has answer — move to a smaller tube.

Photonis is the only manufacturer of a 16mm image intensifier tube. Smaller tubes = smaller housing. Our binoculars are about two thirds the size of regular military binoculars and one fourth to one half the weight. An analogy would be running a marathon in hiking boots and then someone comes along and shows you a pair of lightweight running shoes. That’s the type of impact our night vision goggles have, and we haven’t even discussed the technological advances our 16mm tubes bring to the table.

You’d think military would snap these up, but no. Even though the military has been clamoring for a better solution they haven’t re-written their requirements, which leaves them stuck purchasing large, heavy legacy night vision devices.

We decided not to wait any longer on the military and opened the product up to the general public for purchasing. Consumers now have access to military-grade binocular and monocular night vision goggles that give them same quality and performance as our military members. And that is just cool!

How do you think this will change the world?

Once the sun goes down, people must wrap up their daily activities because that’s when having a lack of daylight creates dangerous situations. How many times have you heard of a search and rescue operations being called off because of darkness? At Photonis Defense we always wonder why this happens when you can continue operations by being able to see in the dark. There are an infinite number of threats to your safety depending on the terrain, weather, and environment. Night vision goggles magnify whatever ambient light is in your area — moonlight, starlight, flashlight, headlights — helping you avoid potentially dangerous and life-threatening situations.

Search and Rescue teams can extend their hours or even go around the clock. Sometimes that 8 to12 hour period makes all the difference in their mission and in the lives of those they’re trying to save.

Firefighters use thermal devices to find bodies or people trying to escape a fire. At night, fire destroys natural night vision capability because bright lights narrow the pupil. Night vision goggles solve that problem by allowing you to see in the dark even in the presence of bright light like that which comes off flames.

Campers have a whole new level of security and enjoyment with night vision goggles. The dark becomes a safe place to play because now you can detect potential threats.

Night fisherman will be able to see objects that might get in their path such as buoys, crab traps, or even docks.

On the home front, night vision goggles help you see things that go bump in the night without the need for a flashlight.

There are so many applications and options that I could go on for hours.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

Following the Law of Unintended Consequences, the pros are outweighed by the cons. On the con side, there is the potential that criminals could use night vision technology to circumvent the law. Ironically, criminals usually have the means to fund devices and systems that may be beyond the budget limitations set by city governments to combat crime. On the pro side, night vision technology allows us to have access to the other 12 hours in a day that our natural eyesight is not capable of seeing. We can pursue outdoor activities, such as camping, astronomy, fishing, hiking, hunting, science, and more, without the need for flood lighting systems and/or flashlights. Police departments are also recognizing that they need to be equipped with the best in night vision technology because their adversaries are using it.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

The tipping point was realizing we were hitting brick walls with what we thought was our “natural” market, the military. They were not going to rewrite their requirements anytime soon; we knew we needed to pivot and not let ourselves be constrained by what the military specifies. Our company is strong, yet nimble, and could think outside of the box by bringing new function to military technology. We approached the problem from a different perspective and brought these amazing night vision goggles to the general public where we knew there was a need.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

We need to educate the consumer that this technology is available, accessible, and attainable. Consumers have already invested countless amounts of time and dollars into getting the right gear and completing necessary training. Our job now is to educate everyone that military-grade night vision products are available to them at an attractive price, in an ergonomic package, and with 40-hours of battery life. It truly is a game changer!

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Understand cash management, cash flow, and finances. The first time I was asked to step into the role of CEO is when I was handed the resignations of the company CEO and CFO who told me we had $5K in the bank and our $135K payroll was due in 3 days.

2. Almost all problems are people problems and people problems need to be taken care of early in the game.

3. Tomorrow is another day — don’t panic.

4. Sometimes you just won’t have all the information. Don’t be afraid to make a decision based on incomplete information — as long as you can live with the results.

5. People naturally want to do a great job — let them. This isn’t saying to let them run amok, but guide when required, otherwise let them make and learn from their mistakes and successes.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

The most successful mindset both in the military and outside of the military is to believe in yourself and never let fear of failure dictate your moves.

My art degree has served me well. Because I am not an engineer, I approach problems from a different perspective. Sometimes, I just don’t know enough to understand my engineers when they tell me it can’t be done. Art has given me the freedom to see things “out-of-the-box” and allowed me to create ideas that might otherwise be dismissed. Suddenly, what might seem unpractical becomes practical.

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

First, I’d ask if they’d like to take the lead in 22nd century telecommunications by investing in the one item no one else is looking at except for the Chinese. Then, I’d tell them that Photonis is working with the military on a product and capability that will revolutionize night vision for the masses and it’s a wide-open field.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I am most active on LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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