Optical components

Intensive Care

Scotland’s Intense Photonics yesterday announced a £7.7 million (US$11 million) round of financing, bringing to an end an agonizing period for the startup developing optical integrated circuits (see Intense Photonics Wins a Wad)

Intense Photonics had been negotiating a funding round with various potential backers for something like nine months, and during that period market conditions, and thus its valuation, have deteriorated considerably. The fact that it’s finally nailed down its dough must be a big relief: It probably also indicates that Intense Photonics' technology is worthy of attention.

Like a bunch of other startups, Intense Photonics is aiming to develop chips incorporating multiple devices using III-V crystal semiconductor materials. It's not saying what specific material it's using but its first product, a 980 nanometer pump laser, is probably made of gallium arsenide.

The company plans to make its chips using a process called quantum-well intermixing. This enables it to grow a crystal and then modify some of the electrical and optical properties of parts of it using a diffusion process, to create multiple devices on a single piece of substrate.

This differs markedly from the way others reach the same goal, according to Craig Hamilton, Intense Photonics’ CTO. One typical technique is to grow a crystal with a single device on it, then etch a hole next to it and grow a second crystal to create another device, and so on.

This isn’t just laborious and expensive, according to Hamilton. It also tends to set up reflective surfaces within the chip. These can create the light equivalent of echoes, distorting signals, he says -- it also makes it tough to ensure perfect alignment between devices.

Of course, the real proof of the pudding will come when Intense Photonics comes out with actual products that deliver better performance at a lower price than alternatives.

Right now, that's some way off. Intense Photonics says it's already conducted trials of lasers, amplifiers, filters, and switches made using its quantum-well intermixing process. It plans to make components for transceivers and switches used in DWDM (dense wavelength-division multiplexing) backbones. The startup says it will demonstrate its first product at the ECOC exhibition next September.

Intense Photonics got into a bit of a fix with its latest funding round by frightening off American VCs with demands for a very high valuation last fall. It ended up having to go back to the folk that provided its original seed funding (of £1.4 million), 3i Group PLC and Ireland’s ACT Venture Capital.

These two VCs also provided early-stage finance for Kymata Ltd., another spinoff from The University of Glasgow

Glasgow's Research and Enterprise department says it's got another three startups in the pipeline, all developing components based on III-V materials, for applications ranging from optical to broadband wireless equipment.

Startups stay under the university’s wing “quite deep into the company creation phase," says Gordon Macmillan, its commercialization manager. They get as far as making prototype devices in low volumes, he says. After that, they move to a combined incubator and foundry, Compound Semiconductors Ltd., that’s part owned by the university (see Scotland Spawns Component Startups).

Intense Photonics went through this process and now has a separate facility on the same campus as the incubator. It has 18 on staff and, now that it’s got some money, it’s mounting a recruitment drive.

— Peter Heywood, Founding Editor, Light Reading
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