Ibsen, Act II
Eighteen months ago, a Danish photonics startup called Ibsen Micro Structures was acquired by ADC Telecommunications Inc. (Nasdaq: ADCT) for stock worth $80 million.
Yesterday, the process reversed itself, as Ibsen Photonics A/S emerged, butterfly-like, out of a management buyout from ADC (see Ibsen Makes a Comeback).
A case of a clash of cultures? A little European startup and a big American corporation not seeing eye to eye?
Not a bit of it. Ibsen says that it’s sorry to part company with ADC, which has taught it a lot, particularly about manufacturing disciplines. In the 18 months under ADC’s guidance “we’ve learned that a good idea is not a product,” says Dirk Jessen, VP of sales and marketing at Ibsen.
In fact, Ibsen is a casualty of ADC’s restructuring program that was completed yesterday, at the end of ADC’s financial year. Under the program, ADC has consolidated its business around four core markets -- DSL (digital subscriber line), IP/cable, operational support systems software, and photonics -- and disposed of everything else. This has helped ADC almost eliminate its debt, as it's reduced its total staff from 22,500 on November 1, 2000, to 12,500 on November 1, 2001, according to Rob Clark, ADC’s director of public relations. “We’ve re-invented ourselves," he says, adding that no further disposals are planned (see ADC Reorganizes and ADC Dumps).
Ibsen is something of an oddball among ADC’s castoffs because it’s a photonics company and thus appears to be part of its core businesses. However, Ibsen’s main business is in making phase masks, which are used in the manufacture of Bragg gratings -- wavelength-selective reflectors used in a wide variety of components. These phase masks "aren't something strategic that we had to make in-house,” says Clark.
This view led ADC to tell Ibsen on August 1 that it was going to be shut down, according to Jessen. “We were up against the wall,” he says, because management buyouts typically take five to six months to put in place. Ibsen reckoned it had to complete everything within three months in order to avoid an exodus of staff. Denmark is a little hotbed of optical startups, notes Jessen, so there were plenty of alternative employment opportunities.
The new Ibsen has got $15 million of funding, mainly from 3i Group PLC and a Danish venture capital company called Dansk Kapitalanlæg Aktieselskab. Ibsen now has 71 on staff, compared to 35 when it was acquired by ADC. The original management team is back in place, with the founder, Per E. Ibsen, in the role of VP of business development.
As noted, Ibsen’s main business is making phase masks. It claims to have a unique way of making them that results in very high resolution gratings, or ones that can distinguish among wavelengths that are packed very closely together.
Ibsen achieves this by using a process that starts by splitting a beam of light from a laser into two and then recombining the light to create an interference pattern. The pattern is directed onto photo-sensitive film on top of a block of fused silica. This is then developed, in the same way that photos are developed, leaving some parts of the fused silica covered with a “resist” coating, and other parts left bare. The whole thing is then bombarded with ions to create what amounts to a block of glass with lots of microscopic scratches on it. The scratches are incredibly accurately positioned, and can be as narrow as 100 nanometers and as close together as 200 nanometers, according to Jessen.
This scratched block of fused silica is the phase mask. Ibsen's customers use it by shining an ultraviolet light throught it to create an interference pattern in the doped fiber of chip substrate that’s beneath it, forming a Bragg grating.
Other manufacturers of phase masks -- notably StockerYale Inc. (Nasdaq: STKR) -- use different processes, according to Jessen. It’s also worth pointing out that some component manufacturers, like Southampton Photonics Inc., don’t use phase masks to make Bragg gratings. Instead, they write the patterns directly onto the fiber or chip.
Ibsen is leveraging its expertise to develop its own components, the first one being a channel power monitor based on bulk diffraction grating. The employment of this technology rather than arrayed waveguide gratings (AWGs) -- which are used by companes like Bookham Technology PLC (Nasdaq: BKHM; London: BHM), Kymata Ltd. (now part of Alcatel Optronics (Nasdaq: ALAO; Paris: CGO.PA), and WaveSplitter Technologies Inc. -- delivers a couple of big benefits, according to Jessen. Ibsen’s channel monitor is much smaller -- like a 17mm-thick credit card -- and consumes far less power because it uses passive temperature control. It hopes to have early samples ready by the OFC conference and exhibition next March.
— Peter Heywood, Founding Editor, Light Reading