Investors Pump $44M Into nLight

Startup is making pump lasers for long-haul networks

January 25, 2001

3 Min Read
Investors Pump $44M Into nLight

On Thursday, nLight Photonics announced that it has closed a $44 million funding round with investments from Menlo Ventures, Oak Investment Partners, Mohr Davidow Ventures, Adams Capital Management, Cedar Grove Investments, and several individual investors. This is the optical components maker's second funding round, bringing its total funding up to just over $50 million.

The startup is still keeping its cards close to its vest, but does say that it's developing pump lasers and erbium doped fiber amplifiers (EDFAs) -- devices that boost the power of an optical signal. NLight's CEO, Scott Keeney, says once nLight's products are ready they'll alleviate some of the bottlenecks present in long-haul networks.

Power is the key. Keeney says that unlike many pump lasers on the market today, his firm's lasers are strong enough for Raman amplification, which is fast becoming an important technology for the long haul (see Raman Amps: Key to Optical Future and CIBC Bullish on Raman). In Raman amplification, the optical fiber itself becomes the amplifier -- a very-high power laser is shined down the link, which shakes the molecules of the fiber so hard that it enables the transfer of energy from the pump laser beam into the signal. This effect is only significant above around 700 milliwatts of pump power, according to industry experts.

EDFAs also benefit big time from having higher-power pumps. Every time the number of channels in a DWDM (dense wavelength-division multiplexing) system doubles, the optical power requirement for boosting those signals also doubles. Since most of the cost of pump lasers is in the packaging, it's better to increase the power of individual devices, rather than simply multiplying the number of pumps inside the amplifier.

The bottom line is that network equipment manufacturers are looking to cut down the number of times optical signals need to be regenerated in long-haul networks (see The Ultimate Backbone ). When Raman amplifiers are used in combination with EDFAs, they could allow the signal to travel an extra 100 kilometers before it needs boosting.

NLight's obviously picked a product with a future. But at this stage it's hard to know whether the startup has the technology to stand up to the heavyweight competition or whether it has the manufacturing prowess required to simplify life for its customers. Though he’s clearly excited about nLight’s prospects, Keeney doesn’t want to stray too far from the press release just yet.

The competition looms large in the shape of JDS Uniphase Inc. (Nasdaq: JDSU; Toronto: JDU) and SDL Inc. (Nasdaq: SDLI), partners in a proposed megamerger (see JDSU and SDLI Delay Merger, Again). JDSU and SDL are the two most dominant players in the pump laser chip market, according to figures from Electronicast Corp.

"The [JDSU-SDL] deal is fundamentally about -- and don't quote me on this -- pump lasers," Keeney says. "What SDL really has are fantastic 980-nanometer pumps." (see Who Gets a JDSU Jewel?).

Furukawa Electric Co. Ltd. is also a significant player. Smaller fish in the pump laser pond include nimble startups such as Novalux Inc. (see Laser Startup Bags $109 Million), Princeton Lightwave, and Alfalight Inc. (See Alfalight Closes $28M 2nd Round.)

Keeney says he thinks the market will be big enough for all comers. Indeed, even as others were impressed with the size and price of the coming JDS-SDL merger, Keeney sees the marriage as a validation of his firm’s technology.

And, about a year from now, when nLight’s products will be on the market, Keeney hopes his firm will surpass what JDSU and others are pumping out.

Phil Harvey, senior editor, and Pauline Rigby, senior editor, Light Reading

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