Startup Sees Window of Opportunity

The best ideas don’t always come from the most obvious sources. Kent Optronics, a startup developing optical attenuator and switch components, is a case in point. Kent's founder Le Li was vice president of advanced materials engineering at Reveo Inc., a contract R&D firm, where he presided over a project to develop a window glazing that can switch instantly from clear to opaque when privacy is required. A subsidiary of Reveo is marketing the resulting product, called LuxVu.

The same principle underpins the products Kent Optronics is developing: it has a liquid crystal that can switch between clear and reflective. But to make it suitable for telecom applications, the material needs to reflect longer wavelengths in the infrared range (1.3 to 1.7 microns), rather than the ultraviolet and visible wavelengths transmitted by office windows.

Li has finished the theoretical analysis of a new liquid crystal material that he has developed and now is building a prototype optical attenuator -- a device in which the degree of reflectivity can be controlled.

Li also plans to make optical switches with this technology. He claims that this will provide a significant improvement over existing liquid crystal components made by companies like Chorum Technologies Inc., Corning Inc. and SpectraSwitch Inc., all of which are based on polarization control.

Polarization-based liquid crystal switches work by splitting the incoming beam into two polarized components. These are passed through liquid crystal modulators and then recombined to obtain the output.

Unfortunately, this results in a number of drawbacks. For a kickoff, any difference in the distance travelled by each beam will show up as polarization-dependent loss, so devices have to be made to very tight tolerances. In other words, manufacturing is pretty demanding.

Second problem: Each channel requires four elements (a beamsplitter, two crystals, and then another beamsplitter), so the resulting setup is bulky and has additional insertion losses. And third: Each liquid crystal modulator is optimized for a specific wavelength, which results in a complicated setup where each part is different.

Li claims that his technology has none of these disadvantages. "We have a simple, compact polarization-independent switch with low insertion loss and fast response time," he says.

This development will come as a big surprise to the others in the liquid crystal space. "Switches that are polarization independent have a big advantage. But if there's a way of making one then it's beyond me," says Don Bouchard, CEO of OptXCon Inc., a startup that's developing an all-optical switch." (See Startup Joins All-Optical Fight.)

On the face of it, the optical switching technology Li is developing bears similarities to the technology on which LuxVu is based. Li denies this, saying that his technology is sufficiently different from LuxVu that it won't infringe anyone's intellectual property rights. "It's based on a totally different material, and it's in a different configuration," he claims. He adds that he has entered into a non-compete agreement with his former employer.

Reveo, on the other hand, says it doesn't know enough about what Li is doing to be confident there is no conflict.

Given that Reveo has a policy of encouraging spinoffs, why did Li choose to go it alone? "Good question," he says. "I was in a very good position and proud of of my job [at Reveo]. But I have ambition -- I wanted to test my capabilities and to be independent." -- Pauline Rigby, senior editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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