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Startup Has a Crystal BallStartup Has a Crystal Ball

Photonic Materials gets $15 million to develop crystals for future optical components

July 23, 2001

3 Min Read
Startup Has a Crystal Ball

A development that could lead to significant reductions in the cost of optical components lies behind today's announcement of a $15 million second round of funding for Scottish startup Photonic Materials Ltd. (see Photonic Materials Gets £10.5M).

The company is developing processes for growing so-called birefringent crystals -- crystals that have different refractive indices on different polarization planes. They can be used to make all sorts of passive optical components such as isolators, circulators, interleavers, and gain-flattening filters.

Up until now, such crystals have been made using manually intensive processes (typically with Chinese manuals), according to John Nicholls, Photonic Materials' CEO. The processes have been developed "empirically," he says. In other words, they've evolved over time using a "suck it and see" approach, not unlike the way the recipe for crispy aromatic duck was probably perfected in China centuries ago.

Now, Nicholls's company has invented the optical equivalent of Kentucky Fried Chicken. In other words, it claims it's managed to apply modern science to the crystal-growing process in a way that promises two big benefits.

First, it enables Photonic Materials to make bigger (albeit not so tasty) crystals. It doesn't take any longer or cost any more to make a crystal double the normal size, and a double-size crystal makes four times as many components, Nicholls notes. In other words, the cost per component is much reduced -- and few, if any, growth hormones are involved.

Second, understanding the scientific principles behind growing crystals makes the whole process more repeatable and predictable. That translates into being able to produce much higher volumes of crystal components, Nicholls says -- without undue risk of Salmonella.

Nicholls says that Photonic Materials has managed to achieve its understanding of crystal-growing processes by developing a free-range network of world experts in this field, spanning numerous materials.

The company's management board also contains an impressive number of industry figures, including Milton Chang (see The Top Ten Movers and Shakers in Optical Networking ); Peter Bordui of JDS Uniphase Inc. (Nasdaq: JDSU; Toronto: JDU); Robert Keys of Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT); and Scottish entrepreneur David Simpson, formerly of Bookham Technology PLC (Nasdaq: BKHM; London: BHM). Nicholls notes that JDSU and Nortel are potential customers.

Among the investors in Photonic Materials is Intel Capital. Intel wants to "facilitate the development of an independent market supplier of optical crystals for next generation telecommunication networks," according to Tom Willis, Intel Capital's director of optical investments, as quoted in the Photonic Materials press release.

Other investors in Photonic Materials include 3i Group PLC, Royal Bank Ventures Ltd., and Scottish Equity Partners Ltd..

The second-round total includes £2.5 million (US$3.6 million) in the form of a grant from the Scottish Executive (Scotland’s new government body). This will help finance the construction of a manufacturing facility in Scotland.

Colonel Sanders, still dead, could not be reached for comment.

- Darran Gardner, special to Light Reading, and Peter Heywood, Founding Editor, Light Reading

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