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Galian Sets Sail

Startup is banking on photonic crystals giving it a breakthrough in integrated optical components

May 1, 2002

3 Min Read
Galian Sets Sail

Vancouver-based startup Galian Photonics Inc., which announced its second round of funding yesterday, is taking a big gamble on what could turn out to be the key technology for future optical components (see Intel Invests in Galian Photonics).

It's backing 2D (two-dimensional) photonic crystals, a technology that it claims will make it possible to create integrated optical components many times smaller than those available today. "A single bend in an AWG [arrayed waveguide grating] typically measures five by five millimeters," says Galian's CEO Richard McMahon. "Our first chip designs are smaller than that."

Size isn't the only advantage, he adds. It's possible to design different optical functions in photonic crystals simply by changing the arrangement of the patterns, rather than by changing the properties of the material itself (see The Hole Thing). As optical components get increasingly complicated, that should represent a real manufacturing advantage, although he acknowledges that there is quite a bit of work to do to get to that point.

So far, both the design and manufacture of photonic crystals have presented major challenges. In terms of design, the key problem was how to make photonic crystal waveguides with low optical losses. In terms of manufacturing, it requires micromachining techniques to make patterns in silicon that push the resolution limits of even the most advanced process technology available for CMOS electronics. Galian plans to make its components by etching repeating patterns, comprising hundreds of tiny holes, into a silicon wafer.

And of course, there's the fact that the optical industry is very depressed right now, with many potential customers remaining uninterested in very new or radical technologies. It's not clear how long this attitude will prevail.

Galian says it's got answers to all these questions. According to McMahon, Galian was the first startup to spin out of a university with the goal of commercializing 2D photonic crystals for optical components; and, as a result, it's gone further than most towards solving the technological issues.

Galian was founded in early 2000 by Jeff Young from the University of British Columbia, a well-known scientist in his field, who first started photonic crystal research in 1995. It was his work on semiconductor membranes -- thin structures with air on both sides -- that gave Galian a way of making low-loss optical waveguides, says McMahon. "We were able to understand how light is lost out of the top of a photonic crystal, and from that we were able to understand how to make them manufacturable." If true, this is a major breakthrough.

Startups that compete directly with Galian include Mesophotonics Ltd., which spun out of the U.K.'s University of Southampton in August 2001 (see Crystal Startup Gets $4M). Another possible competitor is Luxtera Inc., a spinoff of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which secured its A round funding earlier this year.

As for the economic downturn in the industry, McMahon views this as an opportunity to catch up with other component vendors. While they sit out the spending famine, Galian is busy in its development labs preparing its first prototypes, which should be ready by the end of the year. If it's got the timing right, he says, carrier spending will have picked up again by then.

McMahon also points to the fact that Intel Capital participated in Galian's latest funding round, which he sees as a big vote of confidence in his company and in photonic crystal technology in general. The other investors were BDC Venture Capital, Ventures West, and Working Opportunity Fund.

With its latest funding round of US$4.4 million (CAN$7.1), Galian says it has enough cash to last until mid-2003. "We expect to have our first product prototypes on the bench and with a set of lead customers well before we run out of cash," claims McMahon. The only thing he isn't prepared to reveal is what exactly those components will be.

— Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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