Light & Motion was founded by two Stanford grads in 1989 in a Palo Alto garage. Michael Topolovac – a serial entrepreneur who is now co-founder and CEO of luxury sex toy line Crave – had the idea after making an underwater battery for a class project. (Topolovac is still an underwater photography enthusiast. One video he took for Crave’s website is of a waterproof vibrator immersed with a fish at a dive spot in Indonesia.)
A showcase of the company’s products can be found dangling near a wall inside the cannery. The timeline starts with Light & Motion’s very first SCUBA diver video light –
a bulky contraption Emerson describes as “essentially a motorcycle battery with a rubber boot around it.” Further down the wall, the machines get more sophisticated and robot-like, some of the underwater casings resembling Wall-E from the Pixar film.
As technology progressed, so did the company’s ambitions.
“We got a little carried away, and the complexity got higher and higher,” says CEO Daniel Emerson, who joined the team in 2007. The engineers had just designed an expensive underwater camera housing – a “masterpiece of engineering” – for a Nikon SLR. But it was a product that couldn’t last, given the quick pace of digital SLR obsolescence.
“They were not doing very well,” Emerson says. “They were about to crash and burn.”
Emerson, who has a master’s in manufacturing systems from Stanford, refocused its priorities, concentrating on two divisions of recreational products: bike lighting and dive lighting. Though they still make underwater camera housings, that portion of their business went from 50 percent to 10 – so the company wouldn’t have to engineer new housing every time a new camera came on the market.
“By focusing on lighting… we control our own destiny,” Emerson says.
Light & Motion isn’t the only small business with an eye on domestic manufacturing. In a Bloomberg-Businessweek poll of 259 U.S. contract manufacturers, 40 percent benefited this year from work that was previously done abroad.
In 2014 Light & Motion is moving to a bigger space in Marina to accommodate its ongoing expansion. That means they’ll have more production lines, equipment and manufacturing positions.
“There aren’t a lot of really good middle class jobs,” Emerson said. “Manufacturing is one area we can create that.”
Light & Motion, in other words, is just the kind of company that can help keep the lights on.