Tucked away in a nondescript building on Smith Street, a small team of workers is busy creating the latest robotic instruments and tools for astronomers across the globe. They are the staff of Optec Inc., a high-tech design and manufacturing firm that has called Lowell home for 40 years.
In the decades since its founding, Optec has weathered challenges from the global recession to government-subsidized Chinese competitors. However, it has remained the go-to supplier of astronomy instruments for advanced amateurs, colleges and other customers thanks to its dedicated staff and innovative products.
“Bottom line, we have good people who stick around,” says Jeff Dickerman, who owns Optec along with his wife Tina. (Editor’s note: Tina Dickerman is also a co-owner of Lowell’s First Look). Those experienced employees have helped give the Lowell business a presence in the astronomy industry for four decades and counting.
Observatory Brings Business to Lowell
The astronomy company was founded by Jerry Persha who launched the business from his dad’s basement in Royal Oak. In 1979, he moved his venture to Lowell, and Optec was officially born.
“The reason he chose Lowell was because of the Veen Observatory,” Dickerman says. Located on Kissing Rock Avenue in Lowell Charter Township, the James C. Veen Observatory has been serving the local astronomy community since 1970. The facility houses three permanently mounted telescopes and is maintained by the Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association.
Among his other accomplishments, Persha helped revolutionize astronomy by developing an inexpensive photometer. “You don’t get much light in astronomy,” Dickerman explains. Photometers help astronomers create accurate measurements despite this minimal lighting. Prior to Persha’s innovation, the cost of these devices put them out of reach of most amateur astronomers.
Optec also makes a full line of other astronomic equipment, including focusers that help create clear images and photographs. “It doesn’t move the telescope,” Dickerman says. “It moves the camera within so you can stay focused on one celestial object at a time,”
Not only do focusers make astronomical observations easier in all settings, they are essential for unmanned telescopes in remote locations. “We have some focusers on the South Pole,” Dickerman notes. Thanks to those, Optec can say that its devices are in use on all seven continents.
Staying Competitive in a Global Marketplace
Jeff Dickerman joined Optec in 1988, and he and his wife bought the business from Persha in 2008. From an economic standpoint, their timing couldn’t have been worse. The sale was finalized in the spring of 2008, and a global recession hit just a few months later. As people and organizations tightened their belts during the downturn, many eliminated spending on discretionary items such as astronomy products.
However, Optec was able to weather the economic storm by remaining innovative. “We try to stay pretty nimble,” Dickerman says. “Because we are small, we can turn out new designs quickly.” Larger companies may have layers of bureaucracy that must be traversed before new products can be developed. At Optec, the seven employees and two co-owners could be discussing a new design in the morning and building a prototype by the afternoon.
“For a little company, we are very very vertical,” Dickerman says. The business does all its design, manufacturing and software in-house.
The ability to quickly turn out new designs is helping Optec stay competitive with Chinese firms that receive substantial subsidies from their government. “They have a goal to take over the tech world by 2025,” Dickerman says. Given their government’s financial support, it’s difficult to compete with Chinese firms on the basis on price.
Still, Dickerman is optimistic about the future. Given the company’s talented team of workers, he is confident Optec will continue to build on its previous 40 years of success, and Lowell will remain an integral part of many people’s search of the heavens.