Why the next phase of integrated Photonics is important for startups
5 March, 2021 by
Why the next phase of integrated Photonics is important for startups
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"Today, optics is a niche technology. Tomorrow, it's the mainstream of every chip that we build."

That was a statement from Intel senior vice president Pat Gelsinger back in 2006.

One decade later, "tomorrow" has arrived for Photonics.It is a European success story that has now reached a tipping point. 

It’s the technology of generating, controlling, and detecting light waves and photons – which are particles of light. It’s risen from a niche activity to one of six Key Enabling Technologies  in the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 development programme.

Many startups across the continent are getting very interested to not only design chips, but also build world-changing applications which were not possible until now. It’s a mixture of very intelligent hardware and software.

As sales of smartphones go over 1 billion a year, many tech companies need much faster, cheaper and smarter technologies. At the same time, the devices have to be robust, reliable and perform to rigorous specifications. A new Europe-wide ecosystem of designers, foundries, software developers rising up to meet these challenges.

One such startup company is VLC Photonics of Valencia, Spain. The CEO, Iñigo Artundo, has many ties with Dutch photonics tech companies and chip manufacturers. As we speak, Iñigo is currently in the Netherlands to witness the launch of commercial Indium Phosphide chip production on the High Tech Campus Eindhoven.

Photonics is all around us

“Photonics technology is in the process of quietly disrupting many traditional electronics markets” explains Iñigo. “We’ve come to Eindhoven to share the story of why we believe now is the time for startups to be involved in the success of integrated photonics.”

"Light waves are already part of our everyday life; in consumer electronics (barcode scanners, DVD players, remote TV control), health (eye surgery, medical instruments), manufacturing industry (laser cutting and machining), defence and border-control (infrared camera, cryptography remote sensing), entertainment (holography, laser shows), etc.

Photonics technology is at the heart of today’s Internet highway that provides the bandwidth, speed, reach and flexibility needed to run exciting new applications that everyone knows – streaming video, social media, cloud computing and voice over IP. It’s by far the most energy efficient technology to scale up all these services.

Scaling a young company with decades of experience

“VLC Photonics was born as a spin-off company in 2011. We were part of the Telecommunications and Multimedia Applications Institute (iTEAM) located at the Universitat Politecnica de Valencia in Spain. This research centre has been developing optical telecom systems and photonic integrated circuits for more than 20 years. But, although we’re a young company, the field experience of each of our team members goes back at least 13 years.”

“We found some early customers that were very impressed by the capabilities of our technology. That is why we decided to launch VLC Photonics."

“But I believe the photonics industry needs to do a lot more outreach. Everyone has heard of electronics, but not enough people know about photonics as the new key enabling technology. For example, light rather than copper is the already making a global high-speed Internet possible.”

“As we left our research offices and engaged with different companies and institutions around the globe, we heard similar stories. Customers wanted faster, cheaper and smarter optical systems. At the same time, their devices have to be robust, reliable and perform to rigorous specifications. Photonic integration can just achieve that, and there is a new Europe-wide ecosystem of designers, foundries, software developers and packagers rising up to meet these challenges. Our company is already playing a leading role in that.”

“From the start, we have always operated at an international level. If you want to scale-up into a world-class business, you need to operate with the world’s best. So, as well as developing our own skills, we’ve spent a lot of time and effort building active partnerships with all our customers and providers. The goal is to develop winning strategies for everybody. If they succeed, we succeed.”

Following the successful steps of integrated electronics

“We believe that photonic integration is revolutionizing the field of optics in the same way that integrated circuits revolutionized the world of electronics in the 1960’s and 70’s.

From old TV to integrated photonics

“If you remove the cover off an old TV and look in inside you will see a variety of components – a range of different transistors, capacitors, inductors and resistors all wired together on a breadboard.”

“Each of them was optimized to perform a specific task or functionality. But manufacturers were always looking for ways to make these components much smaller. They can then reduce weight as well as the cost of manufacture while, at the same time, making devices with more useful features. By miniaturizing circuits onto a single chip they can also reduce the power consumption. That wasn't so relevant a few decades ago, but once mobile devices came along that were powered by batteries, it became extremely important.”

“But for me, the most important advantage of electronic integration was the ability to scale up the complexity of the systems. Forty years ago, it was impossible to think of building an electronic system that contained millions of components. The physical wiring would be an impossible task and prohibitively expensive.”

“But you can do exactly that in a chip!”

The business advantage of integration

“Integrating a system into a chip is relatively easy to do. By doing so, you can vastly increase the performance specifications of the systems you're trying to build. At the same time, the costs drop dramatically. That's why integrated electronics boomed for both consumers and business: the solutions that they enabled became very affordable. Even though an individual integrated silicon system may not have been as efficient as an assembly of discrete components like transistors or capacitors, the ability to scale up the complexity and decrease price more than made up for that.”  

“The biggest effort comes in the beginning – designing and prototyping a circuit to put onto a silicon wafer. But once that's finished, scaling up to produce millions of the same chip is extremely cheap. It's a bit like pressing a DVD. Making the master is expensive. But the copies are just the material costs and that's a few cents.”

So why did it take so long for photonics to mimic what happened in electronics?

“For a long time, just like in electronics, the optical industry was focused on optimizing the specifications of single components. For example, you had companies focusing on high-end lasers. They were using the best possible materials and fine-tuning techniques to improve them. But this meant a very high investment for each single device.”

“But now in photonics, you also have companies busy making optical chips in a generic way. They use standard fabrication processes and materials to make all kinds of devices without the need for up-front investments for a single application.”

In the Netherlands, researchers led by Meint Smit at Eindhoven University of Technology have been pioneering this new way of thinking. There is a big commercial advantage if everyone uses the same generic process. You can combine a lot of different designs on one chip. In a recent successful test case, we had 20 different designs on one wafer. That means chip design and related applications are now affordable for high-tech startups. 

“Photonic chipmakers are now benefiting from recycling the machines that were once used to build electronic chips and now have become outpaced by the fast advance in their market. This high precision equipment cost millions of Euros to build, so retooling for photonics makes perfect sense.

These days, electronic chip features are in the order of a few tens of nanometres. Photonic components are usually in the order of hundreds of nanometres in size, making them easier to manufacture.”

Photonics chips are very small indeed

Getting the right volume

“Integration only makes business sense when you have achieved a certain fabrication volume. We’re seeing a tremendous number of photonic applications emerging as the industry ramps up. Nowadays, more advanced active chips can generate and amplify light directly on the chip. They can also detect light, like the photodiodes that you find in sensors. This is important functionality needed to make this new phase of photonic integration a business success.”

Exciting new uses for Photonics technologies

“Traditionally the market for integrated photonics has been optical communications. Most modern telecom networks and data centres communicate through optical fibre cables rather than electrical cables. But now all kinds of other applications are emerging in different markets.”

“For example, you can measure distances to an extreme accuracy with a laser. That's very useful for ranging systems like the radar in self-driving cars. Cryptologists have also found ways to secure data into light streams by means of quantum optics. That's almost impossible to intercept because you can't intercept the light beam without being discovered.”  

“We're also excited about the rapid growth of the sensor market. For example, you can use an optical fibre as a sensor because when a fibre is twisted or exposed to heat, the light being transmitted through the fibre is altered. So you can measure mechanical stress in a bridge or an aircraft wing. You only need an optical interrogator at the end of the fibre to detect that change. Traditionally these have been quite large, expensive and bulky. Integrated photonics is changing that. For some of our customers, we have already brought devices down to the size of your thumbnail.”

Medical Photonics will be huge

“Finally, one of the most promising markets is biophotonics, where light can be used to study biological samples and tissues. You can use lasers to burn, to illuminate, or to scan for tumours or other anomalies. A technique called optical coherence tomography is already doing that for eye, dermal or heart treatments.” 

“A lab on a chip is also becoming extremely important for diagnostics in the field. For example, a nurse can put a drop of the patient's blood into a disposable device containing a biophotonic chip that is able to quickly measure blood sugar levels or look for a specific disease.”

New impulse from EC helps scaling

“After the telecom bubble burst in 2001, several years went by when the market was simply in shock. There was a lack of investment and innovation. But scientists advising the European Commission saw that Europe could take a lead in certain key enabling technologies, photonics being one of them.” 

“In 2004, the European Commission started funding international projects to establish generic photonic fabrication facilities. It was important that chip designs could be turned into low-cost working prototypes. At this point, the main driver for photonics was still telecommunications – devices were going digital and smartphones were starting to generate huge amounts of data.” 

“Initial investments were followed by additional R&D projects funded by programs funded by the Commission. They nurtured an emerging field of companies which resulted in making Europe a global leader in the photonic fabless model. VLC Photonics was conceived around that time, and we learnt a lot as early pioneers in the field.”

StartupDelta Special Envoy Neelie Kroes has always been one the great supporters of Photonics. In 2013, she led a group of visionaries at the European Commission who saw this industry was key to bringing smart research and manufacturing back to Europe. Now that investment has given this continent a global lead over the USA and Asia. 

Towards an open collaborative market place

“We have seen major changes in the way customers do business in photonics" continues Iñigo. "They have following the evolution of the business models for electronics. In the beginning there were only vertically integrated companies. That means companies that were doing everything – the chip design, the fabrication, the packaging and testing. They also marketed and sold the final electronic component.”

“This evolved into a horizontal business model where you see the growth of huge electronic fabs in Asia that only provide manufacturing services. Other companies start supplying specialized design services, others focus on packaging services and so on. This is a much more mature business model which can adapt and scale rapidly as markets change.”

“In a similar fashion, a vibrant horizontal ecosystem has emerged in Europe in photonic integration, where VLC Photonics is filling the gap of a chip design house. We're now learning from something that took the electronics sector more than 40 years to develop – and we're achieving it in less than 10!”

More than just chip design

“When we started in Valencia, our company was limited to chip design. But today’s market demands more complete solutions on our part, including preliminary engineering studies, fabrication, testing and packaging.”

“For example, when making a new chip design to solve a specific problem, you first need to choose the appropriate material platform. That could be silicon using a technology known as silicon-on-insulator, or a high-performance material like Indium Phosphide. There is also Planar Lightwave Circuits (PLC) silica technology. That only allows for passive devices but is much more mature and low cost. And then there is Silicon Nitride, which is an emerging technology which has specific advantages in medical and biophotonic applications.”

“This decision is critical, and sometimes our customers are not familiar with the different material platforms. So they require advice beyond just making a chip design. We understand everything that’s needed for a successful photonics integration project.”

Developing a photonic chip in a nutshell

“You begin the chip design by choosing a material platform, so you can map the functionality you want into specific optical components. These are the generic building blocks – a bit like Lego bricks.”

“Once you have optimised your design, you need to choose the foundry where the chip will be fabricated. Each foundry has their own design rules that they require you to follow. The foundries usually keep their costs down by bringing several designs together to print onto a wafer in a single run. When that's completed, the wafer is diced, so each customer gets their own design back.”

“After testing the chip to characterize its performance, then it needs to be packaged with some electrical and fibre connections so the chip can be connected to the rest of the system.”

Knowledge Broker Function

“So, having understood what our customers need, our company helps them decide what is the most appropriate material platform and the engineering and business decisions that need to be made throughout the chip production process. We also understand the language spoken by foundries, acting as an interface on behalf of the customer. We are also in touch with a network of partners for other tasks that we do not perform in house, so if needed, we can arrange for packaging or assembly services.”

“We're also closely following the progress of hybrid integration technologies, where the advantages of passive technologies like silica or silicon are being combined with the light generation and amplification capabilities of Indium Phosphide. It is a very promising field.” 

How do you react to the big investments being made by the US government in Photonics?

“ I think it is confirmation that we're doing the right things in Europe. In October 2014, the Obama government launched a tender for an Integrated Photonics Institute for Manufacturing Innovation. There were three main contenders. In the end, the city of Rochester in New York State was the winner. Over 610 million dollars of private/public funding has since been announced. I think it also sends an important message to the markets that photonics is ready to scale up to a much broader range of applications.“

“Photonic integration has reached its tipping point. We should not forget what has been achieved in such a short time. I'm delighted that VLC Photonics has been one of the driving forces.”