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Kodak exits opto and ends an era

By Tom Hausken
It seems like the end of an era: Kodak is selling its CCD operations and its image sensor patents. It had been making CCDs since 1975, one of the early companies to make them, but waited until 1989 to sell them externally. Kodak had a number of firsts, including the first megapixel sensor, in 1986.

Then CMOS image sensors took off.CMOS sensors were conceived early on, but the lithography was too poor at the time. Omnivision and others brought it to life in the 1990s. Kodak tried several times to break into that product line, but it never worked out. Kodak teamed with Motorola in 1997 on CMOS image sensors. In 2004 it acquired National Semiconductor’s CMOS image sensor operation, for about $10 million in cash. Kodak even had deals with IBM and TSMC to manufacture the sensors, and some clever technology. But it wasn't enough.  

In our 1997 market report, we estimated that Kodak was the leading producer of image sensors outside of Japan, with $38 million in sales and under 6% market share. By the time of our 2009 market report, the image sensor market had grown 10X, but Kodak’s sales were stuck for years at about $80 million. Then in April it sold hundreds of patents and patent applications to Omnivision, for $65 million. And now it’s selling the CCD facility and its 200 employees to  Platinum Equity, a private equity firm.

In a way, kicking out the CCD business has little in common with the rest of Kodak’s problems. The operation being sold still makes high performance CCDs for high-end professional and scientific applications--some of it is really amazing stuff. And over the years a lot of companies have handed off their image sensor operations. For example, Pixel Devices International was sold to Agilent, which became Avago, who sold the image sensor operation to Micron, which spun it off as Aptina. And of course, Kodak is still huge into imaging, and that's photonics too.

It’s just the business getting older, but Kodak had been a classic example of a U.S. company deep into optoelectronics--that is, the actual making of the chips. No more.

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