Paxera Packs Tunable Lasers
Yet another tunable laser company is emerging, but this one -- born after the optical market crashed -- thinks it can stand out with a new technology that promises better performance.
Paxera believes it's the only components play to be funded in 2002, the height (or nadir) of the optical drought. Paxera's sandbox is the tunable filter, a relatively obscure type of component that got big press during the bubble.
But the trend in photonics has been for companies to move up the food chain, realizing that piece-parts by themselves haven't been a profitable business -- so Paxera is shipping a tunable laser, packing its filter in with a continuous wavelength laser diode. The goal is to provide better performance than DFBs at possibly a little more cost at first.
The 20-employee startup has begun sampling products and is starting the process of Telcordia qualification. General availability should come later this year, CEO Ben Sitler says.
Tunable lasers were a hot sector during the telecom bubble of 1999, when startups like Agility Communications Inc. and Iolon Inc. were flying high. The idea was to replace dozens of different lasers with one model that could provide multiple wavelengths.
The devices first caught on as a way to simplify inventory for carriers and DWDM vendors. More recently, tunable lasers have been seen as a way to remotely change the wavelength of a port, Sitler says.
The first wave of tunable laser companies is ending with mixed results. Agility came out a survivor, having been acquired by JDSU (Nasdaq: JDSU; Toronto: JDU) late last year. Iolon was less fortunate, getting its assets bought out by Coherent Inc. (Nasdaq: COHR) Other startups still kicking include Santur Corp. and Syntune AB . (See JDSU Tunes In Agility and Iolon Sells for $5M.)
Despite the number of names out there, the market might be able to absorb one more, as tunable lasers become more widespread and less expensive. "The world has not found the ultimate tunable laser, I think -- although it seems like the tunable lasers that are out there are working well," says Tom Hausken, analyst with Strategies Unlimited .
Paxera shares one aspect with bubble-era startups, in that it began as a science project. Founder Raymond Chu worked with acoustic optics -- a technology that's been around for a couple of decades -- while at KLA-Tencor Corp. , a longtime vendor of manufacturing equipment for the semiconductor industry. He left KLA for a short stint at Iolon before starting Paxera, hoping to apply acoustic optics to telecom.
Acoustic optics uses radio frequency (RF) waves to excite a crystal, changing its index of refraction. The crystal can then be used as a tunable filter, with the affected wavelengths changing as the RF frequency changes. The technology has shown up elsewhere in telecom in mux/demux devices.
Paxera doesn't sell a full laser module, but just the integrated tunable laser array, which includes an inexpensive laser and Paxera's tunable filter, but leaves out the electronics.
Given its post-bubble roots, the company has run lean, getting by on $5 million since its inception in 2002. That includes money from an angel investor and a 2004 venture round that included Crescendo Ventures , Harbinger Venture Management , Infinity Capital , and one component company that Sitler won't name.
"Look at the other tunable laser companies out there. They all raised $100 million or $200 million," Sitler says. "Of course, that was during the heyday."
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading