Each of us has a desire to leave behind a legacy of our all-too-brief time here on Planet Earth. For many, it’s enough to have had a loving family and friends to look back on the good times we once had together. For others, it might be a successful business venture, or perhaps an industry that will long remember our name. Dr. Valentin P. Gapontsev, founder, CEO, and chairman of IPG Photonics Corp., left all of these as his legacy, not to mention dozens of awards, more than 100 patents and enough scientific papers to start a small library.
Gapontsev was born in Moscow on Feb. 23, 1939, just six months before Germany invaded Poland, plunging Europe into World War II. His father, an artillery captain in the Soviet Union’s Red Army, left soon after to serve in what is now Belarus. Two years passed before young Gapontsev and his family fled to the Ural region, where they were helped by German peasants who had been exiled to that area by the Soviet government.
Gapontsev and his family wouldn’t be reunited again until 1944, following his father’s release from a Nazi-run POW camp. When the war ended the following year, they moved to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine where Gapontsev would spend the next two decades.
“I learned from my father the importance of being strong in the face of adversity,” he said during a 2007 interview with SPIE, the international society for
optics and photonics. “I can think of no more important lesson for someone starting a business today.”
It was in Lviv that Gapontsev discovered his passion for science. He earned a master’s degree in electronics from the Lviv Polytechnic Institute, then worked for several years at what he described as “a high-tech company” in Lviv before returning to his birthplace, where he received a Ph.D. at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology.
“My first real taste of R&D as a career was in developing systems for a Soviet satellite program,” he said during the same SPIE interview.
Building on a theory
Gapontsev soon joined the Soviet Academy of Sciences (SAS), immersing himself in a fledgling field that quickly became his life’s work: laser technology. Over the next 25 years, he would publish more than 200 scientific papers and become known as one of the world’s leading experts on such lofty topics as multiphonon relaxation and rare earth doped laser crystals. But in 1990, he left academic work to found the company that would eventually become IPG Photonics.
Gapontsev didn’t invent the laser. That honor belongs to Theodore H. Maiman of Hughes Research Laboratories, who in 1960 leveraged the theoretical work of Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow to build the world’s first functioning device. Nor did Gapontsev invent the fiber laser. That honor goes to physicist Elias Snitzer, who developed the first optical fiber laser just one year after Maiman’s announcement. Gapontsev did, however, see a potential that others failed to comprehend – that fiber lasers are capable of far higher wattages than believed possible at the time – and went on to build a hugely successful business based on his theories.
Headquartered in Oxford, Mass., IPG Photonics Corp. is now one of the largest laser manufacturers in the world. That success is based almost entirely on Gapontsev’s deep scientific expertise, relentless drive and innovation, and utter devotion to the development of high-power industrial fiber lasers. With little working capital and no practical business experience, his fledgling company earned contract after contract, eventually opening facilities in Germany, Italy and the United States.
Milliwatt to kilowatt
Over the years, Gapontsev gained widespread industry recognition. This includes the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year
Award for Industrial Products and Services, the Arthur L. Schawlow Award by the Laser Institute of America and the Russian Federation National Award in Science and Technology. SPIE named Gapontsev as one of 28 “Laser Luminaries” who made substantial contributions to lasers during the 50 years since lasers were invented, and the Optical Society of America elected him as a Fellow of the Society.
Today, IPG Photonics is listed on the Fortune 100 list of fastest growing companies. It employs more than 6,000 people and has 35 facilities around the world. A vertically integrated manufacturer, IPG supplies cutting, welding, marking, and cleaning lasers and laser systems to OEMs, system integrators and end users in a wide range of industries. In May of 2021, the company named Dr. Eugene Scherbakov chief executive officer. He previously served as a director since 2000.
Perhaps most notable above all is that Gapontsev was right. At a time when the world measured laser power in milliwatts and watts, he predicted the development of high-powered lasers many times that range. He then set about building them, developing the technology needed to support his vision along the way. He leaves behind a wife, son and grandson. Rest in peace, Valentin, and thank you for your many contributions. You will be missed.