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Startup Brag(g)s About Its Gratings

Light Reading
News Analysis
Light Reading
5/31/2001

U.K. startup Indigo Photonics Ltd. scored a £4 million (US$5.67 million) first round of funding today from 3i Group PLC (see Indigo Photonics Cops £4 Million).

Indigo plans to make high-quality fiber Bragg gratings (FBGs) and related optical components -- tapping into a market that's expected to top $1 billion within a few years (see FBGs: Key to DWDM's Future?).

An FBG works like a selective mirror, reflecting back a specific wavelength while allowing other wavelengths to continue on their journey. It's a key component with a multitude of uses ranging from simple stabilization of laser wavelengths to array gratings that form the basis of optical add/drop mux modules.

One application that Indigo reckons will grow in importance in the next 12 to 24 months -- by which time it hopes to have stuff rolling off the production line -- is the use of FBGs for dispersion compensation. "At 40 Gbit/s there's going to be a real need for dispersion compensation," says Ian Murgatroyd, Indigo's director of business development. "Systems won't work without it."

Indigo is the latest addition to 3i's optical portfolio, which includes components manufacturers Kymata Ltd. and Kamelian Ltd. (see Kamelian Gets Green Light), as well as switch makers ilotron Ltd. (see Corvis Gets Some Competition) and Polatis Ltd. (see UK Startup Develops Mystery Switch).

In one sense Indigo isn't a new company. It's an amalgam of the gratings division of Oxford Fiber Optic Tools (OFOT) -- a company also originally backed by 3i -- and the Photonics Research Group at Aston University. The two organizations have had close ties for some time, says Murgatroyd, who is also managing director for OFOT.

"Oxford Fiber wanted to expand its gratings operation, and Aston University was looking to commercialize some of its work. The two things came together," he says.

Murgatroyd sees the relationship with Aston University as one of Indigo's major strengths. The university has taken a significant minority stake in the new company and will provide a high-power R&D operation. Ian Bennion, an engineering professor from Aston, is also a founder and consultant with Indigo.

(Incidentally, Professor Nick Doran, founder of the Marconi Solstis venture also hails from Aston University's Photonics Group.)

Credentials aside, what's Indigo got that other FBG manufacturers haven't? Murgatroyd puts it like this: "Every grating is not the same. At the bottom end of the market you can pay $40 for something crude to buckle onto a pump laser. We're at the high end of the market, where people will pay for high performance. Call it a Ferrari strategy."

Through computer simulations carried out at Aston, Indigo will be able to produce FBGs with very precisely defined optical features, he says. It has also developed packaging to ensure those properties stay absolutely stable in the face of varying environmental conditions, including temperature, he adds.

— Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading, http://www.lightreading.com

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