Optical components

Connector Startup Arrives in US

Having good connections matters a lot in optical networking, as Schott Optovance Inc. knows only too well.

The company, which is making its debut in the U.S. today, is well connected, in that it's a spinoff from Germany’s equivalent of Corning Inc. (NYSE: GLW), the Schott Group (see Schott Optovance Unveils Components). It also makes connectors -- not just any old connectors, but special connectors that might help system vendors push the limits on packing more optical capacity into less space.

Schott Optovance’s connectors make it possible to link a large number of fibers to a very small device, a common requirement in all-optical switches based on MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical system) technology. "People have discovered that making the MEMS switch fabric is the easy part," contends Alexander Hagemann, Schott Optovance's CEO. "The difficulty of making the interconnects was completely underestimated."

The company also claims to have an edge in making parallel interconnects -- combinations of fiber ribbon cables and dense arrays of VCSELs (vertical cavity surface emitting lasers) used for carrying very high data rates over backplanes within optical networking equipment.

Its edge comes from selling the VCSEL arrays, which come from Ulm Photonics GmbH (a spinoff from Ulm University in Germany), in which Schott Optovance is a majority stakeholder. The design of the fiber connector is intimately related to the dimensions in the VCSEL array, so having both under the same roof is definitely an advantage for customers, according to Hagemann.

The market for parallel interconnects is set to explode, according to ElectroniCast Corp., a market research company. It expects it to reach $1.5 billion in 2004 and $7.2 billion by 2009, compared to a mere $40 million in 1999.

Schott Optovance has 12 customers for its VCSELs and 20 customers overall, according to Hagemann, who says revenues have totaled $5 million since the company was founded in October 2000. More than half of this is from a product called a fiber shuffle -- not a dance, but a fiber management device that interconnects fibers in different fiber ribbons in a compact and neat way. Although not particularly sexy, products like these are important because they eliminate problems in backplane design.

Although it's a wholly-owned subsidiary, Schott Optovance operates as a startup, according to Hagemann. It has received $25 million in funding from its parent to date.

As noted, Schott Optovance has close ties with Ulm Photonics, a true startup. Founded around the same time as Schott Optovance, Ulm Photonics draws on ten years of VCSEL research by Prof Karl Eberling's group at Ulm University. This team pioneered the development of oxide-confined VCSELs -- a type of laser that is particularly efficient at turning electricity into light. Good efficiency translates into lower power dissipation, which is important for VCSEL arrays because it simplifies cooling.

— Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading
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