Technology profile: Photonic Chip Development at Telephotonics

Photonic chip

Photonic chip

By Robert Israel

A tour of the Telephotonics offices in Wakefield, Massachusetts, just off interstate route 93, reveals a warren of rooms. Some of the rooms are devoted to offices, where 70 employees toil away in cubicles at sundry tasks. Other rooms are devoted to the manufacturing of the photonic chip used in the global-telecommunications and data-communications optical networks. Instead of processing electronics, as with micro-processors or memory, these “chips,” or integrated optical components, process light.

The field of integrated optics is still in its infancy. Telephotonics is staking a claim that integrated optical chips will have the same global impact as integrated electronic chips had several decades ago.

From the looks of it, Telephotonics may be right. Initial investment in the company has been strong, as evidenced by an endorsement by Contrad Leifur, a Minneapolis-based senior analyst at U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray, who has invested in the company.

“Telephotonics has an interesting core technology base and should enable them to develop a cost-effective, manufacturable and tunable product,” Leifur says. “The communications sector is struggling, with heavy debt loads of emerging carriers. The fiber-optic links that underlie all of the internet, and, indeed, underlie all networks, needs a product that will help to lower the cost of the networks, and to improve flexibility. As we emerge from an economic downturn, it is important to have a product that has multiple functions and is easily manufacturable.”

Sanjiv Wadhwani, a senior analyst for the optical-component industry at Dain Rauscher Wessels in San Francisco, agrees.

“During the last several years, companies have been adding capacity to accommodate the onslaught of data,” he says. “And the industry as a whole overdid it. They could not support it. So a retrenching had to happen. Now these companies are thinking in terms of adding — better equipment — that will help by lowering the costs while increasing functionalities. Telephotonics is poised to be successful.”

Telephotonics’ product is described by their technology officer, Louay Eldada, as fusing, or integrating, multiple functions together that yields higher performance and considerable cost savings.

“Every single optical function is produced on a chip,” he explains, “including couplers, switches, attenuators, filters, isolators, circulators, modulators, lasers and detectors — all of which can be tunable when needed. There are many advantages of this integration: size reduction, performance improvement, an increase in repeatability, uniformity, and yields, as well as cost reduction and faster time to market.”

Jim Hughes, the company’s manager of device fabrication, is in charge of readying the product for customers.

“We started this operation from scratch,” he says, remembering when the company lacked the basics to even begin manufacturing of their product. “When we started out, I had to buy the chemicals, the equipment, the acids, all the fundamental things you use to fabricate a microelectronic circuit and set up a process.”

Hughes admits it requires long hours of dedicated work.

“We essentially run a single shift,” he says, “but the nature of a start-up is that you’re working around the clock. So, weekends are fair game to ask people to work, and late nights are pretty common. And now, I’m proud to say, we’ve developed product lines and processes that allow us to build a range of products.”

This may explain why one of the rooms off to the side of the warren of rooms a visitor encounters at the plant, has several mattresses strewn on the floor. It is here that workers get some needed shut-eye for a few hours before returning to the daunting tasks of creating the product.

There is no shortage of competitors in the market, Hughes says. Corning, JDS Uniphase and Agere are three that come to mind. But competition, Hughes notes, is one of the elements that drives the company forward.

And while the economy continues to sputter, and start-up firms like Telephonetics face an uneasy future, this is the spirit that will put them at the forefront. It is a spirit that has faith in its abilities to create a product that serves multiple purposes, can ride an economic downturn, and come out a winner.

Robert Israel can be reached at An earlier version of this report appeared in Tech Biz, a Boston Business Journal publication.


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