Startup Gets Money for Mystery Switch

Civcom Inc., a startup with some intriguing optical switch component technology, arrived on industry radar screens this morning when it announced a $10.5 million second round of funding (see Civcom Gets $10.5M B Round).

The round was led by Mercator Broadband Partners and brings total funding for the nine-month-old company to $20.9 million. It values Civcom at $45 million, according to sources close to the deal.

Getting this sort of money in these market conditions suggests that Civcom is onto something, although it's only giving out shreds of information on what that might be.

Here's what Light Reading has gleaned. Civcom is a typical Israeli startup with an HQ in Reston, Va., and its R&D back home in Petach-Tikva. It's been spun out of Tel Aviv University, which has an equity stake in the company. Many of its key staff are also from the University.

Civcom has two developments in the works -- a family of all-optical switch components called Free-X and another "wave processing" development called Cobra, which is still under wraps.

Its Free-X switches will have up to 64x64 ports, although the first ones, scheduled to go into beta trials in about one month's time, are much smaller. They're 1x2 and 2x2, according to Jacob Vertman, Civcom's VP of marketing and business development.

Vertman says the switches are made from a "special electro-optical material" and are wavelength and polarization independent. They're also able to handle channels with much higher optical powers than normal -- four watts as against a few hundred milliwatts.

The switches have no moving parts and, as a result, are very fast, he claims, quoting a switching time of 100 nanoesconds. They also support dynamic multicasting. In other words, the switch can be configured on the fly to send different proportions of light to different output ports. Civcom's press release quotes a senior architect at [email protected], Lewis Eatherton, extolling the virtues of this development.

In these respects, Civcom's developments sound a little like the lithium niobate switches announced by another Israeli startup, Lynx Photonic Networks. Lynx's switches operate at even faster switching times and also support weighted multicasting (see Lynx Launches NanoSecond Switch and Lynx Adds to Switch Suite).

However, Civcom's Free-X switches use free-space optics, according to Vertman. In other words, they don't steer light using waveguides in the way Lynx's switches do. Vertman also says Civcom's switches exhibit much better insertion loss characteristics than lithium niobate switches, although he declines to say what the insertion loss is.

Light Reading's best guess is that Civcom is working with electroholography, a technology that's based on free space optics and boasts nanosecond switching speeds (see Part 10 of Optical Switching Fabric). Trellis Photonics holds a lot of the key patents in this area, making it tough for anybody to set up in competition with it. But Trellis is targeting big switches, not small components (see Trellis Gets $25M For Holographic Switch).

It's also worth noting that electroholography was developed in Israel, by Aharaon Agranat at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It's possible that the folk at Tel Aviv University, just down the road, have taken Agranat's work a few steps further.

One of Civcom's investors deserves a special mention. It's Aurum-SBC Ventures, which is funded by telecom giant SBC Communications Inc. (NYSE: SBC). Other investors in the latest round of funding include Omninet Capital and Israel's Formula Ventures. First-round investor Concord Ventures participated, as well. Aurum also took part in the earlier round.

— Peter Heywood, Founding Editor, Light Reading

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