LNL Scoops Up Nanovation, Optenia
Even though they didn't succeed as commercial ventures, both Nanovation and Optenia were the source of some ground-breaking developments in integrated optics. LNL is planning to combine these with its own technology, which is the result of over ten years of research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The resulting monster portfolio of intellectual property should make the startup worth watching in the future.
Back to the beginning. LNL was founded in April 2001 by a group of MIT scientists, including Professor Lionel Kimerling, a well-known member of MIT's department of materials and engineering science, and Kazumi Wada, a senior lecturer at MIT and former research group leader at NTT Communications Corp.
LNL's aim is to shrink down photonic circuits. For starters, it claims to have reduced the size and bend radius of a photonic "wire" or waveguide, by several orders of magnitude -- from 1 cm to a few microns. LNL also claims to have invented a way of sending light from an optical fiber into a miniaturized waveguide with minimal power loss. These are core technologies that can be applied to any materials platform, says the company's CTO, Desmond Lim.
LNL isn't saying exactly how it can shrink down waveguide bends, but miniature resonators seem a strong possibility. Kimerling is famous for, among other things, his work on "photonic bandgap resonators" -- miniaturized filters that pick out one wavelength from many (see this article in the MIT Reporter which describes his work).
When it was founded, LNL picked silicon as its materials platform. This is a slightly unusual choice for optics, but one that makes it simple to add electrical functions. It also has the advantage of being compatible with standard electronics manufacturing techniques -- indeed, LNL claims to have demonstrated its core technology using a prototype built at a standard CMOS foundry in Singapore.
But, in April 2002, LNL acquired the intellectual property and patent portfolio of Nanovation Technologies, a startup that had been developing integrated components in indium phosphide originally, and later in silica-on-silicon (see Nanovation Bounces Back).
Kimerling and Nanovation go back a long way. In January 2000, Nanovation agreed to donate $90 million over six years to MIT to set up a new center of research in integrated optics, and Kimerling was the director. In a press release issued at the time, the situation was cited as a fine example "of the emerging partnerships between industry and universities." But in reality, Nanovation may have been prompted to make the donation because it needed access to some technology MIT could provide.
When Nanovation fell on hard times, it was forced to negotiate its way out of the deal, contributing only $4 million in the end (see Nanovation Goes Bust). "One of the reasons that Nanovation failed was that it lacked the technology it was coming to MIT for," Lim contends.
A couple of months ago, LNL acquired the assets of Optenia, which was developing echelle gratings -- an alternative to Arrayed Waveguide Gratings (AWGs) for multiplexing and demultiplexing wavelengths -- based on silica-on-silicon materials (see Optenia's Loss is MetroPhotonic's Gain). LNL has also hired some ex-Optenia staff.
Since the purchase of Optenia, LNL has decided to pursue the echelle grating technology first, in part because it believes it can bring this to market the quickest. "Optenia actually had purchase orders for its products," Lim notes. LNL hopes to have products available sometime this year but doesn't wish to commit itself to a timescale.
LNL raised its $7.1 million capital over the period since September 2001. "The markets haven't been great," says Chuck McMullan, its director of business development. "We had more success with a grass roots kind of approach, and took seed funding from business angels." Among the investors willing to be named are Larry Mohr of Mohr Davidow Ventures and Sandy Robertson, founder of former investment bank Robertson Stephens and chairman of Francisco Partners. Both are also board advisors for LNL.
LNL declines to reveal how many people are in the company. "That would give away too much about us in a back-of-envelope kind of way," says Lim. At this point, Lim and McMullan got jumpy about answering more questions, made their excuses, and left.
— Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading