Though the dream of a truly all-optical network has been put on hold while the telecom industry reacquaints itself with fiscal responsibility, a phalanx of startups continue to position themselves. The latest to announce its entry into optical components is Polychromix of Woburn, Mass., which uses MEMS technology for monitoring and managing multiple wavelengths in long-haul and metro optical networks.
Polychromix’s core technology was originally developed as part of a research project funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It involved scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Sandia National Laboratories and Honeywell International Inc.
Polychromix was formed when the two lead scientists involved in that project, Stephen Senturia and Michael Butler, obtained an exclusive license to apply the technology to the telecommunications field. “We decided to look for a more immediate application that could address a larger market,” said interim CEO Senturia, who as a professor of electrical engineering at MIT for more than 35 years has been a pioneer in the MEMS field.
The DARPA project’s original purpose was to develop a remote chemical sensors system that could be used in battle to detect chemical agents or emission plumes from vehicles located outside of a soldier’s direct line of sight.
In the telecom realm, Polychromix’s MEMS design looks quite different from the more prevalent MEMS switching architecture characterized by 2-D and 3-D mirror arrays. The Polychromix approach uses what the company calls “programmable micro-diffraction gratings,” which look and act like a series of piano keys. Individual channels of light are manipulated by remotely adjusting the height of individual keys, which changes the amount of light being defracted.
Senturia said Polychromix’s architecture is different in that its keys are completely flat while Silicon Light Machines’ and LightConnect’s keys are wavy or curved. This approach ensures that the company’s products are compact — they can fit on a single line card — and energy efficient — they don’t require heater control. It also means Polychromix can provide network operators with a continuous set of controls across the entire spectrum of their transport systems, even managing wavelengths that are located in between channels. “Our technology does not have gaps,” Senturia said.
“By and large, whether its defractive ribbons or keys or mirrors, they’re all bouncing light around,” said Marlene Bourne, a MEMS analyst with In-Stat/MDR. She noted that since the differences between many of these architectures are minor, customer acceptance is the best way to find out if one approach offers significant advantages. But given current market conditions it may be several months before companies gain customer traction. Most carriers are continuing to evaluate next-generation optical equipment, but few are purchasing any.
Polychromix’s first product will be what it calls a Dynamic Channel Orchestrator, which can monitor, attenuate, and add or drop multiple wavelengths. The company expects to begin sampling the product this summer with general availability sometime in late 2002 or 2003. It is targeting systems makers such as Nortel Networks Corp. and Ciena Corp., which can use the product to cut down on costly truck rolls (sending out service trucks to physically maintain network infrastructure) and add new revenue-generating services more quickly.
10 State St.
Woburn, Mass., 01801
Polychromix has its origins in a collaboration among MIT, Sandia and Honeywell scientists who were studying polychromator technology (MEMS-based programmable diffraction gratings). The $8 million collaborative research, funded by DARPA, was intended to result in development of a chemical sensor for use by the military. Co-founders Stephen Senturia (listed as inventor or co-inventor on 28 patents) and Michael Butler later licensed the technology for telecommunications applications.
Telecom channel management
Selected small tech-related products
Polychromix’s MEMS-based programmable diffraction grating is part of an optical subsystem — the Dynamic Channel Orchestrator — that adds, drops, equalizes and attenuates varying wavelengths in optical networks. Other products are planned after the year-end launch of the Orchestrator. A key benefit to this technology is the user’s ability to remotely manage a network.
Polychromix raised $7 million in first round financing in August 2001. Participants included Seed Capital Partners, Vanguard Ventures, Navigator Technology Ventures, Pyramid Technology Ventures, Bain & Co. and Hale and Dorr.
Uncertainty surrounding when the telecom market will turn around and carriers will begin purchasing new equipment again. Need to conserve funds and continue product development cycles while waiting for the market to turn around. Competition from other companies with essentially the same technology.
Converting Polychromix from a technology-push company to a customer-focused company. Being highly responsive to our customers’ demands and building technology that solves problems.
Why they’re in small tech
“I got involved in solid state devices 30 years ago,” says Senturia. “Compared to sensors and actuators, electronics just weren’t that compelling to me. Early on I decided to focus on applying microelectronics to non-electrical things and that has been the thrust of my career for 30 years.”
What keeps them up at night
Figuring out when the market is going to turn around and making sure their products meet their customers needs. “The reality is that taking a technology and building products for demanding customers is hard and requires a talented team. Anytime I need something to worry about I can always worry about what’s going on in product development,” says Senturia
— Research by Gretchen McNeely