Philip Wyatt, founder and CEO of Wyatt Technology, has built his company with a foundation of academic talent and goodwill. One of every six of his employees has a Ph.D., and the company has been voted one of the best places to work in the nation by Scientist Magazine for several years running.  (Jenn Kennedy photo)

For its modest size, Santa Barbara holds a significant brain trust. In addition to UCSB, there’s Wyatt Technology, where one of every six employees has a Ph.D.

Founder and CEO Philip Wyatt built his company with a strong foundation of academic talent and goodwill. One recent day, several dogs were running around with their owners, and the staff took a 20-minute break for an Employee of the Month celebration. And the company has been voted one of the best places to work in the United States by Scientist Magazine for several years running.

“We have remarkable people in every department who are dedicated to giving the customer a quality experience,” said Wyatt, whose two sons are executives at the family-owned company.

Wyatt greets everyone and cracks jokes during a tour of the company’s modern offices on Hollister Avenue. In addition to developing new instruments and tools for the laser-based and light-scattering industries, he is an outspoken leader in the effort to keep technical jobs and manufacturing in the United States, which he sees as crucial to rebuild the middle class.

Wyatt completed only two years of high school before entering the University of Chicago at age 16, as part of an experimental Lab School. The program was structured to expose students to a full four years of liberal arts and sciences, with preparation in a specialty.

“Looking back, it was a spectacular experience, but at the time, I didn’t want to be in college so young,” Wyatt said.

His mother was originally from Wales, so she strongly suggested he attend Christ’s College in Cambridge, which he did. Noting that it was the college that Charles Darwin also attended, Wyatt says he loved his studies abroad. He credits his uncle, a great physicist of his day, to introducing and guiding him toward the study and eventual career in the field of physics. After returning to the University of Chicago for a master’s degree, Wyatt earned his Ph.D. at Florida State University.

Unlike most highly educated physicists, Wyatt chose to leave academia and work in the real world. Initially he joined Ford Motor Co.’s Aeronutronic Division at the infancy of ballistic missile defense. They were tasked with figuring out whether radars were real missiles or decoys.

Wyatt remembers when the laser was invented in 1960, and says it was “a solution in search of a problem.” He began pondering what could be done with shorter waves of light.

As biological warfare became a legitimate threat to the Defense Department, Wyatt proposed using a laser to detect bacteria. The department awarded him a contract to develop his idea.

His first company, Science Spectrum, opened its doors in 1964 with a contract in hand and bacteria to sort. About that time, numerous pharmaceutical companies came on the scene as competitors and put him out of business.

Wyatt was 50 years old and jobless, so he spent the next year teaching physics at UCSB. The Defense Department called to say he had been awarded a contract for a project he had applied to years earlier. Back in business, he launched Wyatt Technology and never looked back.

Within a 60-minute deadline, the company was asked to use a laser to determine if a glass of water had carcinogens, mutagens or metabolic poisons. Ever curious, Wyatt applied the same logic to wine, and he began to see a predictor in the way the lasers scattered in various brands of a wine varietal. The media sat up and took notice, and Wyatt enjoyed nationwide press and acclaim.

Next, he tested soft drinks with interesting results. He received a call and eventual contract from Coca-Cola for research on its coveted formula.

While it took some time to educate the world on the values of his lasers, Wyatt and his staff of 70 are now the leading developers and manufacturers of laser-based light scattering and related instrumentation. They count Nobel laureates, National Academy of Sciences scientists and Howard Hughes investigators as clients, as well as many universities and major biotech and pharmaceutical firms worldwide.

After 27 years in business, Wyatt says he has no plans to retire, although he frequently jokes of suspicion at the reasons his sons encourage him to take up snowboarding and other extreme sports.

Noozhawk contributor Jenn Kennedy can be reached at Click here to see more of her work.