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Business Leaders of the Year

Jason Eichenholz

INDUSTRY

– Luminar Technologies –

– By Meaghan Branham –

Posted on a wall of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., the words of George Low, the university’s former president, caught the attention of Jason Eichenholz more than 25 years ago: “Why not change the world?”

A then-teenage Eichenholz had arrived there in a National Science Foundation high school summer program, after months of tinkering with lasers and creating holograms in the basement of his Massachusetts home — an interest that was sparked by a 10th-grade classroom laser demonstration. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said. “I knew immediately what I wanted to do.”

Low’s question echoed in Eichenholz’s mind when he was an undergrad just as it does today: Why not change the world? “If I can do that by finding possible evidence of life on Mars, or water on the moon, or enabling autonomous cars to allow those who are disabled to drive,” Eichenholz said, “I want to make that happen.”

Those are not hypotheticals. His career contributions have enabled all of those and then some, establishing companies in various industries and developing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of world-changing inventions. On Nov. 24, while celebrating his birthday, Eichenholz had another reason to celebrate: His 60th patent was finalized.

By the time he graduated from the University of Central Florida with his Ph.D. in 1998, Eichenholz had already come a long way from making holograms at home and was well on his way to creating a resume full of revolutionary accomplishments.

In his work at Ocean Optics, his interest in science and commercialization took his technology to some of the world’s most remote locations, from Costa Rican rain forests to the bottom of the Mariana Trench to study sea life and coral growth, to Afghanistan for the development of a portable detector to find explosives. Not content to stick to land and sea, his technology took to the sky with a spectrometer to help measure water on the moon — and three spectrometers on Mars to measure rocks blasted with a laser to determine their composition.

Through his company Open Photonics, he turned his focus to health care, co-founding AireHealth, which developed a portable nebulizer to help people with compromised respiratory systems. His past forays into the industry included work with cancer diagnostics, blood analysis and oral health.

Now, in his most recent venture as co-founder and chief technology officer of Luminar Technologies Inc., he develops sensor and software technologies for use in autonomous cars. He works to fundamentally transform transportation to make it safer and empower those who aren’t able to drive — including his son Jonathan, who has autism — to live and travel just like everyone else, unlocking a future with more opportunity for all. Under his guidance, the company built its headquarters in Orlando, where it’s part of a growing photonics technology industry.

On Dec. 3, the company went public, trading on Nasdaq under the ticker symbol LAZR. The move followed a type of deal that has been increasing in popularity: a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), Gores Metropoulos Inc. News reports have celebrated Luminar’s market cap at more than $10 billion since the initial public offering. Eichenholz started mentoring 25-year-old CEO Austin Russell when the CEO was 16, making the company’s growth an exceptionally personal moment.

Eichenholz said his roles as inventor and entrepreneur complement each other. “I don’t have a preference. I enjoy both. I’ve been surrounded by really, really smart people. I met my first Nobel Prize winner in high school, and I quickly realized I was not going to be that guy. But I knew if I combined my passion for entrepreneurship and business, and my passion for science and technology, I could make a difference. I truly believe the two go hand in hand.”

In both roles, Eichenholz has not lost sight of two truths — the first being that he has the potential to truly change the world. The second? That he can’t do it alone. “A true entrepreneur sees an opportunity that doesn’t exist, and a lot of people will tell you ‘no’ because they can’t see it. If everyone could see it, they would be doing it,” Eichenholz said. “The other half is this: Surround yourself with people smarter than you. They will be the ones who see the things that you can’t see.”

Why not change the world? “If I can do that by finding possible evidence of life on Mars, or water on the moon, or enabling autonomous cars to allow those who are disabled to drive, I want to make that happeN.”

Jason Eichenholz

 


Photography by Julie Fletcher

As seen in November/December 2020 i4 Business Magazine

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About the author

Meaghan Branham

Meaghan Branham is a writer and communications manager for i4 Business magazine. A Florida native who graduated from UCF with her BA in English literature in 2017, she looks forward to more opportunities to share the stories of those shaping Central Florida.

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