John Tracy '65
Entrepreneur’s focus evolves from semiconductor lasers to wine
John Tracy ‘65 stands on a hilltop on Ireland’s west coast, sizing up a bull who eyes him from several yards away. “If I have to make a run for it, we’ll finish our conversation later,” he tells a cell-phone caller from the MIT Alumni Association.
Tracy, president of Owl Ridge Wines in Sebastopol, CA, is vacationing with his wife, Deborah. They needed to unwind after their latest successful venture in the wine industry–turning a custom wine-making company around.
Unlike Tracy’s earlier entrepreneurial endeavors, the wine-making business, which he entered in 2001, took him by surprise. “We bought a home site in West Sonoma County, which incidentally had a vineyard on it,” he says. Tracy then partnered with wine maker Joe Otos to form their Willowbrook Cellars label “as an excuse to do something with the grapes.”
Tracy and Deborah started Owl Ridge Wines in 2002. While Willowbrook focuses on pinot noir, Owl Ridge makes cabernet sauvignon. The companies’ creations have garnered more than 30 gold medals at major competitions since 2005, including several Best of Class awards.
After majoring in physics at MIT, Tracy earned a PhD at the University of Washington in 1970. For the next 10 years, he developed optical devices at Rockwell International. Seeking a smaller corporate environment, Tracy moved to Applied Solar Energy in 1985 and started a division devoted to semiconductor laser technology.
When he saw an opportunity to acquire Applied Solar’s laser business, Tracy found backing from Spectra Physics and formed Opto Power in 1992. Sales of Opto’s high-power semiconductor lasers soared to $38 million within five years. “We figured out how to make them inexpensively,” explains Tracy. This innovation introduced lasers into applications including surgical devices and direct-to-press printing. Tracy sold his interest in 1997 and left the company in 1999.
Tracy attributes a large part of his success to his experience at MIT. “While I wasn’t the best student at MIT,” he says, “problem-solving skills just developed naturally through my immersion in the environment there.”
As for his bull problem on the Irish hilltop, Tracy relaxes after several cows show up. “I think they’re hoping I’ll feed them,” he says, laughing. “Maybe I should consider raising cattle.”
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