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Author: Paul van Gerven (Bits & Chips 5)
In January 2011, Boudewijn Docter and colleagues from Effect Photonics left a Silicon Valley building thinking they would never hear from the internet company again. Sure, it had been a good meeting, if a little short – their appointment, a former colleague of Docter’s, couldn’t spare them more than half an hour. But a small Dutch startup with no track record to speak of snaring one of the world’s largest internet companies as its first customer? That seemed a little too good to be true.
“Yet, to our big surprise, one week later, we got an email, asking when we were planning to submit our proposal,” tells Docter, who together with Tim Koene founded Effect Photonics in 2009. Only then, the Eindhoven-based team took a closer look at what their potential customer actually wanted, and whether they could make that happen. “We concluded that the photonic integrated circuit – our core business – was feasible, but its packaging would be a major issue. The kind of sophisticated packaging we needed simply didn’t exist at the time. However, we did have some ideas on how to cost-effectively develop one,” explains Docter, currently serving as president of the company.
Co-funded by their new-found Silicon Valley patron, Effect Photonics started developing an integrated optical transceiver that can send sixteen different data streams over a single optical fiber cable. This would enable every fiber internet user to have his own dedicated bandwidth, without giving him his own fiber cable. Clearly, that would be a major step up from users having to share the connection to their provider with a number of neighbors, resulting in performance loss during peak internet hours.
But after a couple of years, Effect Photonics’ customer had scaled up its fiber ambitions and decided it didn’t want to wait for new technology after all. When it pulled the plug on the project in 2014, “we thought that was the end of the company,” says Docter.
It wasn’t. It took another couple of years and some more twists and turns, but Effect Photonics is now moving integrated optical transceivers into production and onto the market. “It has taken us quite a while, but all those years of work have resulted in something much more than a product: we have a technology platform that allows us to create a range of products, each tailored for a specific application. This is exactly what we’ll be doing in the next few years: launching products aimed at the many different telecom applications out there.”
On the map
That’s good news for Effect Photonics but also for the integrated-photonics industry as a whole. Companies like Effect Photonics moving into volume production – and Docter is convinced the volume is there in telecom – will boost the momentum of the technology, allowing it to fan out in other application areas. “It’s like how things evolved in electronics. Chips were originally developed to power computers, but once an industry of a certain size had been established, people started using chips for other applications. This is how it will happen in integrated photonics as well.”
The Dutch integrated-photonics ecosystem, in particular, stands to gain from the steps Effect Photonics is about to take, even though none of the companies in it have a need for transceivers themselves. United in the public-private open-innovation partnership called Photondelta, these companies are looking to establish a world-leading integrated-photonics industry in the Netherlands (see inset “Photondelta’s growth strategy”). Effect Photonics is working with several partners in the network, increasing not just their business activity but also the knowledge and experience they need to keep moving forward. The progress that Effect Photonics is making, therefore, represents a very tangible boost to the maturation of the ecosystem.
Conversely, Photondelta has played an important role in getting Effect Photonics where it is today, says Docter. Apart from fostering cooperation and facilitating knowledge sharing, the organization “has really put integrated photonics on the map. Photondelta has provided us with funding directly, but it has also helped us tremendously in finding funding, both from investors and through collaborative research projects.”
The chip – or, more aptly: system-on-chip – Effect Photonics’ Silicon Valley customer was looking for was a 16-channel transceiver capable of dense wavelength-division multiplexing. DWDM allows data from incoming signals to be separated and encoded on different wavelengths of light, which are subsequently sent onward through a single fiber-optic cable. At the receiving end, the colors are disentangled and sent to their final destination: the customers of internet service providers. In essence, DWDM dramatically increases the amount of data that can be sent through a fiber-optic cable or network. Or, conversely, it saves a lot of fiber-optic cables.
So, even though the initial customer didn’t go through with it, Effect Photonics was still convinced that its chip made for a great business proposition. “It was clear to us that integrated optics has a lot to offer in fiber-optic networking. The equivalent system composed of discrete components would be prohibitively expensive. So, after the initial shock of the project getting canceled, we decided to pitch our technology to other networking companies, like Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson.”
It worked: leveraging the interest of networking companies, Effect Photonics closed a new investment round in 2014 to develop a DWDM optical transceiver, this time geared towards less cost-sensitive business applications, such as corporate offices and cellular towers. “The chip would essentially be the same, except we needed only 10 channels, but more bandwidth per channel.”
After another couple of years of development, however, it dawned on Effect Photonics that there was a fundamental problem with their transceiver: even if they would get it market-ready, they probably wouldn’t be able to sell any. “You need transceivers at both ends of the connection. We had been focusing on the transceiver that sends out multiple wavelengths, but at the other end, you need transceivers too, to send a signal back.” Network operators wouldn’t even consider switching to DWDM before these single-channel (or: single-wavelength) transceivers were available at an acceptable price level. And they weren’t.
Flexible and scalable
This commercial bottleneck may have actually been a blessing in disguise for Effect Photonics. A single-channel transceiver was basically a much simpler version of what the company had been working on all these years. Developing one would be relatively easy, manufacturing it would be less complex, and even the advanced packaging – for which the company had developed a solution in-house at a facility set up in Brixham, in the southwest of England – would retain its advantages.
“We realized we had a great proposition here because we had tunable lasers. In the multi-channel transceiver, we had been taking advantage of that tunability, but only to keep the wavelength from drifting in response to, for example, temperature changes. For the generation of the light itself, it was more cost-effective to have a separate laser for every wavelength. On the other hand, a single-channel transceiver that can be tuned to a specific wavelength would be a major boon for network operators because they don’t like to keep a different model in stock for every wavelength.”
Ironically, the single-channel transceiver, at the right price level, would even make the multi-channel one unnecessary. “You can just as easily use multiple single-channel transceivers. This has a major advantage, actually: you take as many as you need, while in a multi-channel, the number of channels is fixed. It’s a much more flexible and scalable way to move towards DWDM networking.”
Make its mark
From 2016 onward, Effect Photonics focused on the single-channel transceiver. It didn’t take long for the company to complete a prototype that met all specifications. Next up was the grueling process of meeting the demands of stability, reliability, reproducibility and manufacturing yield.
“We really had to go through a learning curve getting our product market-ready. Obtaining your first design that meets the specs is wonderful but not nearly good enough to start selling anything. We had to do a lot of optimization – the optimal design not being the one with the best performance, but with the highest yield and acceptable performance.”
“One standard requirement we had to meet, for example, was keeping our transceiver working for a thousand hours at 85 degrees Celsius and 85 percent humidity. That’s like hanging it just above the surface of a pot of boiling water! Traditionally, optical components have very sturdy packaging to withstand such conditions, using materials like kevlar. We had something entirely new and for cost reasons didn’t want to go that way. So we had to find our own solutions – and we did.”
Effect Photonics launched its first product this year, a 10 Gb/s DWDM tunable optical transceiver module. It’s 10-20 percent more expensive than a fixed-wavelength transceiver, which is impressive in itself, as tunable is typically twice as expensive as fixed. Total cost of ownership is where Effect Photonics’ product really shines, however. “We have an autotuning feature, in which the module scans the network for what channel to use. One component, not 40 different model numbers to keep in stock, no engineer required to program it at installation: it’s plug-and-play and hot-pluggable.”
10 Gb/s may not sound like much when transceivers of 400 or 600 Gb/s are being considered for some applications. But there are plenty of applications for which 10 Gb/s is still the best match, assures Docter: his company is already working closely with several companies to get the technology on the road. The transceivers are already in field trials.
Effect Photonics will move on to higher bandwidths, of course. “No one develops a chip technology for a single product. We’re now in possession of a technology platform that can relatively easily be expanded upon. Possibly, in other markets than telecom, but right now, we don’t want to distract ourselves.” A 25 Gb/s module is now being manufactured and slated for launch later this year – the 5G community has shown particular interest in this one. A 100 Gb/s version is in development as well and eventually, Effect Photonics will move into the 400-600 Gb/s realm. “At the right volumes, we think that we’ll be able to offer these up to four times cheaper than current solutions.”
Thus, Effect Photonics is finally ready to make its mark in the world. Starting with little more than an inkling of untapped potential, it’s taken the startup the better part of a decade to settle on a winning product, and another couple of years to get it market-ready. Now it’s time to reap the rewards.
© 2019 PhotonDelta