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UK Startup Develops Mystery Switch

Light Reading
News Analysis
Light Reading
11/22/2000

Another early-stage startup developing all-optical switching technology crept out of the woodwork today to announce the appointment of an industry heavyweight as its chairman.

The startup in question is Polatis Ltd., a company based in Cambridge, U.K., and its new chairman is Allan Fox, previously managing director of the Harlow, U.K., labs of Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) (see Ex Nortel Exec Joins UK Startup).

Polatis was founded last June by Sentec Ltd., a technology development company also based in Cambridge. Sentec’s founder, Andrew Dames, while attending a conference in the Netherlands, suddenly hit on an idea for switching light. He’s now CEO at Polatis, which is partially owned by Sentec. An undisclosed amount of seed money has come from various venture capital companies and business angels. Right now, Polatis has 22 staff and is about to raise its first round of serious funding.

So, what was Dames’s “Ah-ha” idea? Good question. Polatis isn’t saying, but some clues are buried in what it says it will deliver. It plans a highly scaleable, 3D switching subsystem with very low crosstalk and very low insertion loss. Switching speeds will be measured in milliseconds -- plenty fast enough for point-and-click provisioning and protection applications, according to Jonathan H. James, Polatis’s business development manager.

Here are some more clues: Polatis’s first product will switch bundles of wavelengths from one fiber to the other. Later on, it’ll switch individual wavelengths, says James. Developments will target metro and long-haul applications.

Here’s Light Reading’s take on what this means:

Let’s start with scaleability. James won’t give the size of the switch that Polatis is aiming to build but says “the future is greater than 32 by 32 [ports].” Right now, the only technologies that are known to scale to a thousand ports or more are holograms or MEMS-based arrays of tiny tilting mirrors (see Optical Switching Fabric).

Now let’s look at switching bundles of wavelengths in the initial development. That sounds like MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical system), because holograms are best suited for wavelength selective switches. It also rules out thermo-optics and semiconductor optical amplifiers, which also switch individual wavelengths.

Then there’s the low insertion loss. That’s tricky, because it doesn’t sound like MEMS or printer-jet bubbles, the technology being developed by Agilent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: A). In fact, bubbles probably wouldn’t cut it on scaleability grounds, either.

So, maybe Polatis has latched on to a totally new technology? If so, what could that be?

Andrew Dames’s background may provide an answer. One of the earlier companies he founded at Sentec is Holotag Ltd., a company making identity tags. It’s using a magnetic technology that shares a common characteristic with holograms, according to Hermione Crease, Sentec’s marketing manager. Crease, however, says there’s no connection at all with Polatis. “It’s a totally different technology aimed at a totally different industry,” she says.

The mystery should be solved in the first half of next year, when Polatis plans to demonstrate what its switch can do.

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

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