Optical components

Essient Makes an Entrance at OFC

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- OFC 2002 -- Winning investment for a new optical networking idea is much harder now than it was a few years ago. So, for that reason alone, it's worth taking a closer look at Scottish startup Essient Ltd., which is announcing initial funding today at the Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exhibit (OFC).

Essient was founded in January 2002 to commercialize technology from Scotland's Glasgow University. The same seat of learning also spawned at least two other optical efforts, including startup Intense Photonics Ltd. and Compound Semiconductor Technologies Ltd. (CST), an incubator (see Intel Invests in Scottish Foundry) [Grrrrrrrrreat!].

Essient's history is typical of a U.K. startup, says VP of marketing Jeremy Chappell. The startup's founder, professor Charlie Ironside, had been working on his idea for eight years. He was able to demonstrate the basic technology -- a modulator that operates with a drive voltage of only 100 mV -- while funded purely by research grants from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the U.K.'s funding body for the physical sciences.

Things moved to the next stage when Ironside was awarded a grant by Scottish Enterprise, a government development agency. With this cash, he built a prototype device.

In the third chapter, Ironside has teamed up with Pond Ventures, which led the $7 million initial round of funding announced today. Pond Ventures partner Mike Gera has taken the post of interim CEO. The company hopes to deliver product samples to customers by the end of the year, using CST as its foundry.

So what of Essient's technology? Chappell says the key point about the company's modulator is the ultra-low drive voltage. Other types of modulators, such as lithium niobate, require at least several volts to operate -- about fifty times more than the devices Essient is developing.

Chappell says this will have a big impact on the driver circuits and other components that surround modulators. Instead of requiring a dedicated modulator driver, it will become possible to integrate the driver circuit with other chips -- which run off low voltages -- inside a transceiver module. "This will result in significantly simplified interfaces for 10- and 40-Gbit/s components," he claims.

From a system vendor's perspective, the product will address two key concerns -- size and power consumption. If everything goes as planned, Essient's technology will result in much smaller devices with significantly lower power consumption. Chappell reckons that it could shrink transceiver modules to one tenth of the size they are today.

How, exactly? The underlying technology is what's called a resonant tunneling diode, an electronic device that displays a very sharp increase in current with only a small change in voltage. By applying this idea to a waveguide -- using the change in electrical current to engineer a change in the refractive index of the material -- it is possible to make a modulator.

Essient also claims it can also use this idea in reverse to create a highly sensitive detector for 10- and 40-Gbit/s systems.

— Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading
http://www.lightreading.com For more information on OFC 2002, please visit: www.nottheofc.com

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