Scotland Spawns Component Startups

Scotland’s Kymata Ltd. has already made a name for itself as an innovative developer of optical components, but now a bunch of other startups in the same region are following in its footsteps.

Most of the startups have had a helping hand from local universities, some of which host world-class optical research labs.

The best example of this has occured on the west side of Scotland, where two particularly hot startups -- Kamelian Ltd. and Intense Photonics -- have got going in a special incubator. The incubator was set up by the University of Glasgow and the University of Strathclyde with £7.5 million ($11 million) from the UK government. It goes under the name of Compound Semiconductor Technologies Ltd. (CST).

Unlike most incubators, CST operates its own foundry for making planar optical components from so-called III-V semiconductor materials such as gallium arsenide and indium phosphide. As a result, the startups under CST's wing have been able to make first samples a lot earlier than if they'd had to rely on outside foundries.

It helped Kamelian make its first samples in just a few months after the company was founded, according to its CEO, Paul May.

Kamelian is developing so-called hybrid photonic semiconductors. Specifically, it's making semiconductor optical amplifiers (SOAs) out of indium phosphide and then bonding them to other devices such as arrayed wave guides (AWGs) made by other vendors (see Kamelian Ltd.).

This process promises to deliver components that could have a big impact on all-optical networks, such as reconfigurable optical add/drop multiplexers, optical wavelength converters, and optical signal regenerators, according to May.

Intense Photonics, the other telecom-oriented optical startup in CST's incubator, is keeping its cards closer to its vest. All that CTO Craig Hamilton will say is that the startup will be making “monolithic” optical integrated circuits. In other words, it won’t be sticking together different material chips like Kamelian. It will be incorporating multiple devices in a single chip, just as Sparkolor Corp. and a bunch of other vendors are trying to do (see Sparkolor Plays Catch Up). Intense Photonics' first product is based on gallium arsenide, but subsequent products will be made out of indium phosphide, Hamilton adds.

Both Kamelian and Intense Photonics are currently finalizing rounds of finance that will enable them to ramp up their development efforts considerably. CST itself is also talking to venture capital companies, with a view to raising money to expand its facilities.

On the east side of Scotland, near Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt University has spun off another startup called Terahertz Photonics that’s also poised for significant expansion.

Terahertz’s speciality is in optical coatings -- applying thin films of special material to a variety of surfaces to change their light properties. This process is used to make optical products for all sorts of applications. In the telecom area, it’s often used to make filters.

Until recently, Teraherz has provided coatings as a service to other component manufacturers, but now it’s planning to make its own components, based on a special polymer that it’s developed. One of the products will be a solid state tunable filter, which Terahertz reckons it can make at a very low cost. It’s early days, however. “We’re at the stage where we’ve just proved that the polymer has low loss and high stability,” says CTO Frank Tooley. “All we’ve really got right now is some good ideas.”

Still, those good ideas have already attracted a small amount of funding -- £3 million ($4.5 million) from a couple of local venture capital companies, Scottish Equity Partners and ADD Partners.

Last but not least among the new Scottish startups is Photonic Materials Ltd., a company which makes so-called birefringent crystals. These crystals polarize light in opposite ways when light is shone through them on one axis or the other. They’re finding increasing applications in all sorts of components, including isolators, circulators, interleavers, and dynamic gain flattening filters, according to John Nicholls, Photonic Materials' CEO.

The importance of these developments is best judged by the investors backing Photonic Materials. Some of its seed money came from Milton Chang, chairman of New Focus Inc. (Nasdaq: NUFO) and Number 8 in The Top Ten Movers and Shakers in Optical Networking compiled by Light Reading. Photonic Materials' latest round of funding (a mere £2.5 million -- this is Scotland, remember) came from a bunch of backers including Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC)

-- Peter Heywood, international editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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