Rare local manufacturer Light & Motion illuminates extreme places for adventurers everywhere.

December 28, 2013

By Arvin Temkar (via Monterey County Weekly)
The ground floor of 300 Cannery Row, an unassuming building adjacent to Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa, buzzes with activity as workers assemble thousands of tiny aluminum and plastic pieces into compact lights.Machines rumble and whir under the dim orange cast of the warehouse- like space, while upstairs, designers and engineers work under high ceilings.
On a street where once-gritty sardine plants have given way to upscale hotels and boutiques, this former cannery has managed to maintain its industrial roots while building a unique and modern business. Light & Motion specializes in making illumination for adventures like diving, cycling and camping, with products ranging from handheld underwater lamps rechargeable by USB to bike torches whose beams rival a car’s headlights – lights for the hardcore adventurer who wants a bump of illumination to photograph a giant octopus or needs to see where a mountain trail veers.
“There’s not that many people that do this kind of stuff,” said Jim Decker, CEO of local company Backscatter, the largest underwater photo and video store in the world. “As for underwater imaging, there’s not that many people who do that. It’s a niche of a niche.”
It isn’t just the lights, though, that make Light & Motion shine. In a time when it’s not uncommon for U.S. companies to ship factory jobs overseas to places like China, Light & Motion manufactures and assembles many of its products in Monterey.
And they’re making money doing it too. The $699 Sola Dive1200 – a handheld dive light – is the largest revenue generating dive light in the U.S. Due in part to an uptick in biking, the company grew during the recession.

A premium is placed on adventure too. “Our lifestyle here is cool,” says senior machinist Randy Hanson as he pieces together a metal mold that will be used to create a prototype reflector for a dive light. “We have a lot of people who dive. If they want to do a location test they can just walk out the door.”

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.