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Startup tests water with 'channel orchestrator'

Posted: 06 Feb 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:wavelength management component? polychromix? defense advanced research projects agency? darpa? mit?

A Massachusetts startup, attempting to find new wave-management life after the death of several wavelength-blocker component companies, has offered a new wavelength management component based on special diffraction gratings derived from a government contract awarded in the 1990s.

Polychromix Inc. just completed a second round of financing that takes capitalization to $15 million. Investors in the round included Siemens Venture Capital.

The company grew out of an $8 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) contract to MIT, Sandia National Laboratories and Honeywell Corp. to develop a programmable microdiffraction grating for chemical sensing applications.

Stephen Senturia of MIT and Michael Butler of Sandia realized that the basic design of the component could be used for programmable dynamic gain equalization and dynamic channel equalization functions. The team quietly built prototypes of what it called a "dynamic channel orchestrator" (DCO).

At the same time, the photonic component market was going through unprecedented turmoil.

Mouli Ramani, VP of marketing and business development at Polychromix, said large OEMs with internal opto-component operations, including Nortel and Lucent, were selling or shuttering their component operations. Leading startups exploring wavelength blockers such as Chorum Technologies, Network Photonics and OMM Inc. were closing down, leaving their intellectual property stranded.

"The time was ripe for new blocking components," Ramani said. "But OEMs expect a very viable message to come from a startup, because they've seen too many companies die."

Polychromix deliberately kept its plans minimal and manageable, using its first $7 million to build a fab in Woburn, Massachusetts, and gain ISO certification. The new funding will sustain the company through 2005, but first samples of the DCO component have gone to prospective customers, and many will be on display at next month's Optical Fibers in Communications conference in Los Angeles.

Polychromix's Holy Grail will be the commoditization of the reconfigurable optical add-drop multiplexer, or R-OADM. First-generation R-OADMs use a mix of DCE and DGE components, usually relying on fixed-function wave blockers.

Polychromix is offering a programmable component small enough to put on a line card, which will allow OEMs to stock many DCO parts, and use them for different channel and gain applications.

The "P-DCO" device from Polychromix is intended as a general-purpose dynamic spectral equalizer, configured on the fly as a DGE or DCE component. It can use 50GHz or 100GHz channel spacing, with 50 or 100 channels. The DCO relies on a single qualification process, a common vendor interface, and a common electromechanical interface.

The grids developed by Polychromix have three layers: a top optical layer that remains flat in any circumstances; a deformable middle layer that bends as voltage is applied; and a bottom layer of electrodes. When the grating components are in a single plane, the component reflects light directly. When some grating components are deformed, light is diffracted by predictable amounts.

Currently, Polychromix only makes use of zero-order light reflections, though possible expansions to P-DCO could use light diffracted by plus or minus orders of one.

The component has a dynamic range of over 40dB and does not need special thermal control. It dissipates 2.5W in typical operation. Polychromix said it recognizes that the component price will have to meet a carrier-level per-wavelength price not only in the long-haul market of less than $200 a wavelength, but also prices in the metro market for far less.

For now, Polychromix sees its toughest competition coming from JDS Uniphase and Avanex, though small specialists like Arroyo Optics Inc. still may prove to be viable competitors.

- Loring Wirbel

EE Times

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