NanoOpto Thinks Small

Startup gets $16 million to make optical subcomponents with features smaller than the wavelength of light

December 3, 2001

4 Min Read
NanoOpto Thinks Small

NanoOpto Corp. is a component startup with a big idea -- making incredibly tiny optical devices that defy the rules of classical optical phenomena such as reflection, diffraction, and ray tracing.

The big idea got some big financial backing today. The New Jersey startup announced a $16 million first round of funding from a bunch of blue-chip VCs: Bessemer Venture Partners, Morgenthaler Ventures, and New Enterprise Associates (NEA) (see NanoOpto Nabs $16M).

As its name suggest, NanoOpto is meddling in the strange netherworld of nanotechnology, where dimensions are measured in nanometers (a nanometer is one thousandth of a micron). It's currently developing a range of what it calls "subwavelength" optical components -- ones with features smaller than the wavelength of light, according to Stephen Chou, the startup's founder and science officer.

Chou is a professor of engineering at Princeton University, where he heads the nanostructures laboratory. For the past 15 years, while at Princeton, and the University of Minnesota before that, he's been developing new device and fabrication ideas based on nanotechnology.

Chou claims that subwavelength components will have a number of advantages. "Light in these structures does not follow the rules of classical optics," he says. Concepts like reflection, diffraction, and ray tracing, which are familiar to optics engineers, no longer apply. Instead, the light behaves in new ways, and so it is possible to design completely different devices.

As a consequence, it becomes possible to achieve different optical functions using the same material, simply by changing the nanopatterns, Chou says. Photonic crystals, which are a specific type of nanopattern, are a subset of what NanoOpto calls subwavelength optical components (see The Hole Thing and Twisty Crystal).

Chou says he's not short on device ideas. "The most fundamental issue is what technology you need to make this device," he says. NanoOpto's components are fabricated on a wafer, and so the company can take advantage of the manufacturing techniques used in the silicon microelectronics industry. The difficult step is defining the dimensions of the pattern on the wafer, since this is beyond the resolution of photolithography -- the standard process for patterning silicon wafers.

Chou won't reveal exactly what techniques his company has developed -- that's its secret sauce. The Website of the Nanostructures Laboratory at Princeton offers some pointers to the techniques that he's been working on, such as electron-beam lithography and nanoimprint lithography, but he says the Website is a few years out of date.

The upshot of all this is to enable more compact integrated optical components. By integrating several functions on a single wafer, it reduces the number of components that the end user has to buy. And since NanoOpto's components are manufactured using techniques based around those in the microelectronics industry, it bypasses the manufacturing bottlenecks associated with traditional optical components.

In some ways, NanoOpto could be considered to be just another integrated optics company, but there are several things that set it apart.

For a start, NanoOpto isn't planning to make complete subsystems. Instead, it intends to make subcomponents and sell them to the likes of Agere Systems (NYSE: AGR), JDS Uniphase Inc. (Nasdaq: JDSU; Toronto: JDU), and Lightwave Microsystems Corp..

Second, there are only a few companies planning to make integrated components with such small features. And those that are, such as Galian Photonics Inc., Mesophotonics Ltd., and Micro Managed Photons A/S (MMP) (no Website), are much earlier stage -- they don't plan even to have prototypes for a few years. In constrast, NanoOpto expects to introduce its first suite of products at OFC 2002 next spring.

Third is the startup's leader team. "In a startup it is typical to see a founder who is a technologist, and an engineering team," says NanoOpto's president and CEO Barry Weinbaum. In his view, NanoOpto has a very diverse leadership team for an A round company.

Weinbaum himself is a veteran of Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU), where he spent 13 of his 21 years there dealing with mergers and acquisitions for Lucent's optical networking group. Most recently he was VP of optical long-haul solutions.

Other key personnel include VP of operations Sheo Khetan, who has 28 years of service in the semiconductor manufacturing industry, most recently as VP of manufacturing for Anadigics Inc.. And senior director of engineering Y.K. Park has 25 years product development experience with Bell Labs and Agere.

The startup expects to make it until the end of 2002 before it needs to raise more finance.

— Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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