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Fiber Components Excite VCs

Light Reading
News Analysis
Light Reading
6/15/2000

A new startup developing optical components -- Southampton Photonics Inc. http://www.southamptonphotonics.com -- made quite a big splash in the UK earlier this week by announcing first round funding of $55-million.

That’s a lot of money for a first round, even by U.S. standards, which begs the question: what’s so hot about Southampton Photonics?

First, it’s planning on using an unconventional way of making conventional components – Bragg gratings, amplifiers and lasers. Instead of developing silicon chips to build these components, it’s making them out of single pieces of fiber - yes, that's right, the same 1/10th of a millimeter thick strands of glass found in telecom cabling.

The bottom line? Simplicity – which translates into better performance, lower costs and higher reliability, according to Badri Nathan, investment manager for Amadeus Capital Partners Ltd. http://www.amadeuscapital.com, one of the VCs backing the startup.

The second reason why Southampton Photonics got such a hefty first round was that it’s been spun out of the Optoelectronics Research Center of the University of Southampton, a world-famous photonics lab that specializes in making optical components from fiber. The lab’s director, Professor David Payne, played a key role in developing the Erbium Doped Fiber Amplifier (EDFA) – considered to be the biggest breakthrough in optical technology in recent years.

Southampton Photonics will retain close links to the university, with a view to commercializing other developments coming out of the lab. The university is an investor, and Payne is serving as the startup’s chairman while continuing to run his lab.

For the moment, Southampton Photonics is focusing on developing three components: “Bragnet” high performance Bragg gratings, “Gainet” amplifiers for DWDM (dense wave division multiplexing) networks, and “Hydranet” distributed feedback lasers.

These three products rely on two technologies developed at the university lab –- fiber Bragg gratings and fiber amplifiers.

Fiber Bragg gratings act like filters – picking out a specific wavelength and reflecting it back up the fiber while allowing all other light to continue on its way. This mirror effect is created by forming what amounts to a succession of barriers in the fiber, with each barrier having a different refractive index to the glass in the rest of the fiber. The spacing of the barriers determines the frequency of the light that gets bounced back.

Southampton University has developed a way of automatically translating requirements for Bragg gratings into the pattern of barriers to be superimposed on the fiber, and then automatically manufacturing the actual grating. Nobody else in the world has such a process, and nobody else can produce such long, fine-grained gratings, according to David J. Richardson, a professor in the lab.

The upshot is that Southampton’s gratings deliver particularly well defined wavelengths, which enables wavelengths to be squashed close to each other in DWDM systems -- 25 GHz apart compared to 100 GHz apart in current equipment.

Each wavelength also can carry far more data, according to Don Spalinger, Southampton Photonic’s senior vice president. “We can utilize between 75 and 85 percent of the capacity that each wavelength can give us,” he says. That compares with a theoretical figure of 25 to 30 percent in existing systems, and a practical figure that is often between 5 and 10 percent, he adds.

The other fundamental technology being used by Southampton Photonics -– fiber amplifiers –- works by using a secondary laser to pump extra light into the outer “coating” of fiber, which energizes the light signals passing through the core, increasing their power. The fiber is doped with rare earth to make this possible.

Southampton University has developed ways of making these amplifiers so that they have up to 10 “ends” -- tails where light can be shunted in or out. This means a single amplifier can boost signals on multiple fibers, slashing carrier costs. It also means that multiple pump lasers can be used, improving reliability. In addition, it enables Southampton to create components that amplify signals before and after correcting for other problems, using its fiber Bragg grating developments.

Southampton Photonics plans offices and plants in the UK and the US. Major investors in its first round include Amadeus, Quantum Technology Partners, a company formed by a number business angels, Interwest Partners http://www.interwest.com and Sevin Rosen http://www.srfunds.com.

By Peter Heywood, International Editor, Light Reading, http://www.lightreading.com

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