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Dark Horse Joins Optical Switch Race

Light Reading
News Analysis
Light Reading
11/23/2000

One of the dark horses in the race to develop MEMS-based (micro-electro-mechanical system) all-optical switching subsystems, Integrated Micromachines Inc. (IMMI) is planning to announce a $45 million round of funding on Monday (Nov 27).

The startup has kept a low profile since it was founded way back in 1995 but has decided that it’s time to make a little splash. In particular, it’s aiming on using the announcement of its latest injection of cash to tell the world how it’s going to compete with its more publicity conscious rivals such as Calient Networks and OMM Inc..

First, however, the finance. The most interesting thing about IMMI’s $45 million is that “a significant portion” of it is coming from “a major telecom equipment manufacturer,” according to Steve Walker, IMMI’s manager of marketing communications.

Walker won’t say who, but it can’t be Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA: Paris: CGEP:PA) or Siemens AG (Frankfurt: SIE), both of whom have invested in OMM. It also can’t be Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT), which has already bought a startup in this field - Xros. It’s also unlikely to be Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU), which has its own development – the LambdaRouter.

Walker says it is a vendor in this size bracket – which doesn’t leave that many possibilities. “We’re already developing boxes together,” he adds.

Other participants in IMMI’s latest funding round are Invesco Private Capital, Adams Capital Management, SunAmericaVentures, Venture TDF, Juniper Venture, United Overseas Bank of Singapore, and Falcon/Hallador Ventures.

Now for IMMI’s competitive edge. It reckons that it can outgun all other developers of MEMS-based switches on insertion loss. “We’ve demonstrated 3 decibels,” says Walker. Other vendors typically quote 6 or 7 dB for a relatively small switch.

IMMI’s very low losses result from optimizing materials and manufacturing processes to deliver exceptionally flat, smooth mirrors of a particular size, according to Walker. He declines to give further details.

Typically, losses increase with switch size, and Walker declines to say what size was used to demonstrate IMMI’s ultralow losses. He says IMMI will demonstrate a 16x16 switch at the Optical Fiber Communications conference next March but doesn't say whether it will have 3 dB of losses.

All bets also appear to be off on losses associated with the monster 1000x1000-port subsystems that IMMI also plans to develop. “When you get to the very big port counts, everybody has problems,” says Walker.

In the past, IMMI has made a big thing out of the electromagnetic forces it uses to turn the mirrors in its switches. It says they are much stronger than the electrostatic forces used by other vendors, and that this enables IMMI to tilt the mirrors through greater angles and thus make higher port-count switches (see Switch Startup Raises MEMS Questions).

Finally, IMMI points out that it’s aiming on manufacturing its own MEMS structures, unlike some other startups developing all-optical switches. “It’s basically a disaster if you rely on somebody else to make your devices,” says Walker. IMMI already has a 70,000 sq. ft. plant and is looking for another 10 acres so that it can expand.

By the way, there's an even darker horse than IMMI. Cspeed Corp. has been been hiding away, quietly developing MEMS-based optical switching subsystems since 1997.

-- Peter Heywood, international editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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