Minnesota's hottest stock hits a turning point

Golden Valley-based CyberOptics Corp., which was the hottest stock in Minnesota last year, cooled off over the past three weeks after reaching its highest level since 1999 in January.

The maker of sensors and chipmaking equipment on Tuesday announced 18 percent sales growth and a solid profit, helped by a tax benefit, for the last three months of 2016.

But that was the slowest period of a year in which CyberOptics saw its sales grow 61 percent to $66.2 million. And executives forecast lower sales for the first half of this year, with a pickup in the second half.

CyberOptics shares, which tripled from around $10 a share to $30 a share in 2016, peaked at $40.15 on Jan. 20. The shares faded by mid-February to the $35 level and, following the earnings announcement, fell to around $27.

The company's innovative optical inspection systems, which can detect flaws in microchips and other small electronics products, experienced a 57 percent sales jump in the fourth quarter. Executives said the firm continues improving those systems to be able to inspect smaller surface areas.

In last week's announcement, CyberOptics said its inspection systems in a laboratory setting are now "consistently" measuring devices at a width of 50 microns, or five one-thousandths of a centimeter. "Progress is being made toward measuring sub-50 micron features," the company said.

The circuits inside of a chip are another 1,000 times smaller and no device can inspect something that tiny. But CyberOptics is getting closer to a time when its devices can be used to look for flaws on a wafer that contains hundreds or thousands of chips.

Another set of products that CyberOptics produces, wafers that inspect the performance of chipmaking equipment, saw a 21 percent jump in sales during the fourth quarter.

An industrial 3-D scanner that the company rolled out last spring saw only nominal sales, however. Customers are taking a longer time to evaluate the product, called CyberGage 360. "The company remains confident that CyberGage will be an important contributor to its long-term sales growth," it said.

Evan Ramstad


Linden Hills Co-op workers vote to unionize

Linden Hills Co-op workers voted late last month to form a union, the second Twin Cities grocery co-op to affiliate with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

Of 74 eligible voters, 51 cast their ballots for Brooklyn Center-based UFCW Local 653. Nine voted against the union, five ballots were challenged by the employer and 11 workers didn't vote.

"Forming a union reinforces co-op values of community throughout our store," Linden Hills Co-op employee Evan Adams-Hanson said in a statement. The co-op is in the southwest Minneapolis neighborhood of Linden Hills.

In 2015, workers at the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis' Whittier neighborhood voted to join South St. Paul-based UFCW Local 1189. About 160 retail and warehouse workers at the Wedge are represented by 1189, according to a spokesman for the local.

The co-op organizing drives have come as the Twin Cities grocery market faces increasing pressure from nonunion grocers, most recently from Hy-Vee, Fresh Thyme and Trader Joe's. Cub Foods, Lunds & Byerlys, Kowalski's and Jerry's are the primary unionized grocery chains in the Twin Cities.

UFCW Local 1189 also recently organized Whole Foods Co-Op in Duluth (no relation to the Whole Foods grocery chain). Last month, the Duluth workers voted 43-42 to join the union.

Mike Hughlett


3M wins preliminary decision in Korea case

A South Korean intellectual property trial and appeal board has upheld the validity of a 3M patent regarding its method of stacking the surface of "structured optical films." 3M's film product is used in the making of packaging, electronics and other products.

The decision is related to a 2015 patent infringement lawsuit that 3M Korea had filed against LMS Co. Ltd. in the Seoul Central District Court.

In its lawsuit, 3M accused the company of infringing upon 3M's light management film packaging products that are sold under the name XLAS. LMS countered, asking the Korean intellectual property board to consider 3M's patent invalid. The administrative board has now ruled that the 3M patent is valid, which could move the patent lawsuit forward.

3M's prism films are used in some cellphones, televisions, monitors and notebook computers. The films help direct light so that a thinner and more energy-efficient display is possible. 3M has been aggressive in protecting its patented processes, which are used by customers around the globe.

Now that the Korean intellectual property board has decided that 3M's patent is valid, the rest of 3M's lawsuit could make its way through the court system. The case, which revolves around 3M's patent number 1,074,570, is ongoing, and it is not clear when it will be resolved.

In announcing its preliminary victory, 3M officials said they remain "committed to vigorously protecting [3M's] intellectual property and investments in optical film technologies."

Dee DePass