Swiss On a Roll

Optical networking startups are popping up all over the world – thanks to the efforts of research establishments wanting to commercialize their developments, and thanks to the globalization of the venture capital business.

A good example of this phenomenon is occurring in Switzerland where more than half a dozen optical startups have emerged in recent years. Many of them have got started with help from the country’s technical institutes and universities. And many of them are now finding that getting VC funding to take their ideas further is far less of a problem than it used to be.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of Switzerland’s hottest optical networking startups:

Opto Speed SA is developing a range of components. It’s already shipping 10 Gbit/s receivers and superluminescent light emitting diodes (SLEDs). It’s also making semiconductor optical amplifiers, viewed by many as a key component for all-optical switches.

Opto Speed was spun out of the Institute of Quantum Electronics, part of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH). Last year, it acquired a Deutsche Telekom group developing chips based on III-V semiconductor materials such as indium phosphide. It employs 60 people and expects a turnover of about $8 million this year (up from about $1.2 million last year).

Gigatera AG is developing ultralong-haul transmission products. It’s in stealth mode at present and won’t say what technology it’s using. However, it’s based on work conducted at ETH, which also helped set up Gigatera.

"The tech transfer group [from ETH] was very helpful in getting the patents organized. It also provided office space, as well as research support," says Gigatera's CEO, Andros Payne, who used to work for Mercer Management Consulting Inc. and is a graduate of Stanford University. "We wouldn't have this kind of support in the U.S.," he adds.

Avalon Photonics makes a range of 850-960 nanometer VCSELs (vertical cavity surface emitting lasers) using a technology for embossing microlenses that focuses the light coming out of the laser. Avalon was spun out of the Center for Microelectronics (CSEM), an institution that is privately owned but partly government funded and acts like an incubator. Its clean room and office facilities helped Avalon get started.

Avalon already has some blue-chip backers, including Viventures, Intel Capital, and Vision Capital. "Avalon's track record of commercializing VCSELs shows that it can turn research into revenues," says Torsten Krumm, a director of Intel Capital.

Avalon's VCSEL driver integrated circuits are designed by Helix AG, a spinoff of the same university department that spawned Opto Speed.

Heptagon Oy, based in Zurich and Helsinki, Finland, makes filters, beam splitters, microlens arrays, and couplers. It's another CSEM spinoff.

Sercalo Microtechnology, based in the Principality of Lichtenstein, is developing MEMS-based optical switch components. It already has 1x2, 1x4, and 2x2 switches and expects to ship an 8x8 non-blocking matrix switch in 2001. It’s emerged from the Institute of Applied Physics at the University of Bern.

Luciol Instruments is developing an innovative chromatic-dispersion analyzer that actually counts photons. Luciol says that it can detect incredibly small amounts of light -- a single photon in 10 packets of data. That totally blows the socks off current test equipment, which works by measuring light power in an analog way. "Prototypes are being tested by Swisscom, Nortel, and Alcatel," says Patrick Stamp, co-founder and production manager.

"We had been wanting to start our own company for a while," says Stamp. "But we couldn't get seed money until very recently. Now we are turning away venture capital investors.”

Luciol got started In the physics department of the University of Geneva, but it's "unofficial" (shock! horror! -- this is Switzerland, remember). This means it hasn't had any assistance from the University's technology transfer department, unlike other startups.

The University's "official" spinoff in the same area -- fiber optic test and measurement equipment -- is Gap Optique SA (no Website), which is 85 percent owned by Canada's Exfo Ltd. and 15 percent owned by the University. "GAP Optique acts as an advanced R&D lab for parent EXFO," says André Fougère, Gap's CEO.

Luciol and Gap were working together on the same technology at the University at one stage, and could end up squabbling over patents.

-- Valerie Thompson, special to Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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