Store It, And They Will Come

Optex's 'Sexy' Mass Storage Is Headed for the Big Time

Optex Communications Corp. has a big memory and even bigger plans.

The Rockville, Md-based development company has run the federal technology gamut from Small Business Innovative Research grants to cooperative research and development agreements to Advanced Technology Program awards. Now it's looking to commercialize its unique ultra-high density optical disk.

"We've got some technology that's very sexy," said Optex Senior Vice President Tony Clifford. Naturally, numerous mass storage players are baying at his door. However, company management isn't playing easy-to- get.

At stake is a patented technology called electron-trapping optical memory, or ETOM, which allows four bits of digital information to be stored in a single location on an optical disk. That translates to a whopping 15 gigabytes of memory on a 5.25 disk with transfer rates of 120 megabits (or 7,500 text pages) per second. The media is read by low-power lasers and is re-writable.

Optex raised $6 million in a private stock offering last December and is planning an initial public offering this fall. Stockholders won't be hard to find, as widespread trade press publicity has given the company a high profile. Last year's offering was oversubscribed, and Optex appears to hold one of the few keys to the memory-intensive information superhighway.

So far, there have been plenty of buy-out offers for the 23-employee company, but Clifford says Optex isn't looking to be passively owned, at least not cheaply.

"We were not interested in doing that at the kinds of valuations we were getting last summer," he said. Thanks to a $1.4 million Advanced Technology Program grant awarded in December, Optex has the funds to prototype its first disk storage unit. The company expects to have a commercial video-server on the market by the end of 1995.

The new device will be targeted to regional Bell operating companies who are on the lookout for efficient mass-storage units for video transmission to the home. Optex also has plans to market a consumer video disk player called Playser, but right now the company has no money for prototyping.

Rather, resources are being spent to perfect the manufacturing of the optical disk thin-film which has proven tricky. Under a cooperative research and development agreement with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Optex is using atomic-force micrography to analyze newly-made disks. The company plans to manufacture the media in-house, and contract out the hard drives.

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