Optical components

Fresh Money for New Materials

This week, the venture capital was flowing to startups claiming to have new approaches to optical components using materials such as ceramics and polymers.

Yesterday, Continuum Photonics Inc. announced that it had raised $14 million to develop a new material for optical switches, bringing its total funding to about $16 million.

The round was led by new investors Flagship Ventures, and Prism Venture Partners, with Harris & Harris also participating. Seed investors Massachusetts Technology Development Corporation (MTDC), Gainesborough LLC, and private individuals also took part.

Continuum is in stealth mode and won't have a product out until the end of the year, according to Aaron Bent, its founder and executive VP of business development. With barely a pause, he went on to explain that the switch is based around an electroactive or so-called "smart" ceramic material -- which changes shape when a voltage is applied -- and on silicon micromachining.

"It's not 2D or 3D MEMS [micro-electro-mechanical system], or a planar lightwave circuit," he says. "What it is, is something we believe will be disruptive in terms of price point, loss characteristics, and -- a third thing that many people forget until the end -- reliability."

Bold claims, given that the product is early stage, and the market for optical switches has been put on hold. "The best I can say about that [the market]," Bent says, "is that lots of people have tried to enter the photonic switch market and failed. But there is still a need."

In its favor is the fact that Continuum isn't just relying on the optical switch market. Founded in 1998, it's been selling products based on its smart material into other markets -- military stealth technology and vibration damping -- for several years.

At the OFC conference back in March, the startup showed a demonstrator of its switch technology -- a 9x9 optical switch with an insertion loss of less than a decibel. Bent claims that it can make a 128x128 switch with losses under 1 dB -- a number that has competitors raising their eyebrows.

"If they're claiming all ports across a fully packaged device at low loss, that would be hard to believe," says Conrad Burke, OMM Inc.'s senior VP of sales and marketing. For comparison OMM, which makes switches up to 32x32, claims insertion losses of under 7 dB for its biggest switch. And losses tend to increase as switch size increases.

Burke also points out that there's a big difference between a lab experiment and, worst case, fiber-to-fiber measurements in a fully-packaged device.

A few days previously, Optimer Photonics Inc. scored $5.5 million to continue development of a polymer for optical switching (see Optimer Photonics Grabs $5.5M).

Optimer is a spinoff of Battelle Memorial Institute, an R&D establishment that primarily works for U.S. government departments. Battelle previously incubated PIRI, a developer of Arrayed Waveguide Gratings (AWGs), which was sold to SDL for $148 million in October 2000 and then became part of JDS Uniphase Corp. (Nasdaq: JDSU; Toronto: JDU) until JDS shut it down a few months ago (see JDSU Posts Loss, Buys Startup).

Optimer was founded in July 2001 by a bunch of integrated optics experts who hadn't left Battelle with the PIRI sale. They were joined by a group of materials scientists and chemists, to help in the development of an electro-optic polymer -- one that changes refractive index when a voltage is applied.

Optimer isn't the only startup developing electro-optic polymers for optical switching. Several others, including, Lumera Corp., are using materials developed by Dr. Larry Dalton at the University of Washington (see Polymer's Progress).

But unlike the others, Optimer is planning to use its polymers in conjunction with waveguide components, like AWGs, bought from elsewhere, to make a variety of components, including modulators and attenuators as well as switches. It hasn't yet decided if it will sell end-products itself, or if it will partner with AWG companies.

Optimer's investors are Battelle, Primaxis Technology Ventures Inc., and Mitsubishi Corp. — Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading
vengance 12/4/2012 | 10:07:07 PM
re: Fresh Money for New Materials The SDL acquisition of PIRI went down closer to $1Billion.
shaggy 12/4/2012 | 10:06:23 PM
re: Fresh Money for New Materials Why Mr Burke would have a hard time seeing 1dB, given that 7dB is about the best they're doing at OMM. There are a number of emerging technologies that will eventually supercede the current crop of MEMs devices, with dramatically improved price and performance points.

I also find it interesting the LR gives OMM a free chuck at the competition for an article like this- I seem to recall another article where LR was doing a piece on some 3D MEMs company, and somehow Conrad got a picture of *his* device in the article- not the device from the company the article was being written. I can only compliment Mr. Burke on his ability to steal the spotlight in such an instance.

Beyond Continuum and Optimer are even more advanced technologies in the works; that's when it will get really interesting, and we should start to see some "star trek" stuff. Infinera (nee Zepton) has the equivalent of an optical IC.

Once you start building integrated optical components on an IC wafer basis, it will create a whole new technology revolution, similar to the one created by the IC.

This won't happen overnight, but we'll see it in our lifetime (assuming you're not 90 right now...)

won't it be fun then to recall the good old days when WDM meant putting a 1310/1550nm splitter on your lines....

Dr.Q 12/4/2012 | 10:05:44 PM
re: Fresh Money for New Materials Optimer has a very, very steep climb to get into the telecom market. Polymer materials are great for lab experiments, but have many issues to overcome before being field grade. Chief among these are

1) Manufacturability -- process control (=yields) has killed many others in the field, Optical CrossConnects (nee Polymer Optics) comes to mind.

2) Temperature Sensitivity -- breathe on a polymer material and it changes properties -- even if you have Class 100 breath.

3) Optical NonLinearities-- Organic materials exhibit optical nonlinearities under high optical intensity (which are often temperature dependent). These effects depend sensitively on the the actual temperature and optical intensity. Field grade devices need to be insentive to temperature and optical power.

4) Material Degredation -- Organic materials degrade over time.

5) Optical Degredation -- Organic materials degrade with exposure to high optical intensity. Two photon absorbtion, (and N>2 photon absorbtion) is significant at high intensities, promoting molecular bond dissociation.

Moral--Target polymers to applications besides telecom (e.g. consumer electronics, automotive). Polymers are very likely to be successful in those markets.

-Dr. Q

BobbyMax 12/4/2012 | 10:05:40 PM
re: Fresh Money for New Materials This kind of technology development should be undertaken by unversities rather than VCs whose investment cycle is very short. Moreover, the VC inspired companies do not have the desired personnel and knowledge base to delve into complexties of basic research.
Jim Bean 12/4/2012 | 10:05:16 PM
re: Fresh Money for New Materials Dr. QGs bad experience in the past with an inappropriate polymer should not cloud our judgement now of the capabilities of up to date polymers engineered for robustness. The thermal stability of modern polymers is excellent, no degradation is observed until 400 degrees C, well above the maximum post-processing temperatures required. The temperature sensitivity of polymer is one of its great strengths, a high CTE allows it to be used to make low power dynamic devices. The loss in state of the art polymers are now comparable to that in CVD and FHD glasses- measurements of degradation due to high powers show no adverse effects. Process control is trivial with liquids compared to CVD or FHD production- a single step spin and cure operation like photoresist, no etching, no mask removal or lift off. Any manufacturing problems Optical Crosslinks may be having is a specious example- they use laser direct write.
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