March 27, 2005 9:00 PM PST

Start-up joins race to marry optical, silicon tech

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Luxtera, a start-up with a fairly strong silicon pedigree, says it will marry fast optical communications to cheap silicon manufacturing in about two years, sooner than competitors.

The Carlsbad, Calif.-based company plans to announce Monday that it has created an optical modulator--a component that chops up light into ones and zeroes--that can transfer 10 gigabits of data per second with conventional silicon processes. The company hopes to have samples out by the second quarter of 2006 and move into commercial production by late 2006 or early 2007, said CEO Alex Dickinson.

The achievement pits the company in a race against Intel, Primarion and many others to change the way computers, and ultimately chips within a computer, speak to each other. Some companies are trying to achieve 10-gigabit speeds on copper wire, according to, among others, Crosslink Capital's Dave Epstein.

Others, such as Luxtera, believe the future belongs to swapping out wire for optical fiber. The company also says it is moving faster than Intel, which has said it may not bring out a silicon modulator until toward the end of the decade.

"It is easier to move information around optically. A photon is 250,000 times lighter than an electron," said Dickinson, a former Bell Labs researcher who was a pioneer in creating digital imaging chips on inexpensive, standard silicon processes. "At around 10 gigabits per second, it gets hard to move information over copper."

Unfortunately, producing optical equipment is expensive: Manufacturers often refer to their trade as a "black art." Dickinson and other chip executives, however, believe that a lot of the costs come from the fact that optical emerged from the telecommunications industry.

"They use exotic materials and exotic packaging. There are a lot of different pieces," he said.

Still, manufacturing optical components on silicon has proved problematic. One issue, for instance, is that the wavelengths of light are often longer than the channels inside a silicon chip.

Luxtera's secret weapon is the California Institute of Technology. The company's technology comes out of the university, which has also been running computerized simulations for years on how to solve the problem. The software and know-how from the university can't be easily replicated, said Dickinson.

"Light in small waveguides behaves in very strange ways," Dickinson said.

The prototype was made on behalf of Luxtera by FreeScale, on its 130-nanometer silicon processes. Over the next year, Luxtera will test the chip and work on issues associated with mass manufacturing.

Like Dickinson, many of the company's executives and advisers are familiar faces. Gabriele Sartori, a former Advanced Micro Devices executive who helped popularize HyperTransport, serves as vice president of marketing. Forest Baskett, a partner at New Enterprise Associates and a Stanford professor, sits on the board, while Arno Penzias, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on the Big Bang and is an NEA partner, sits on the advisory board. The company's CTO, Cary Gunn, was named one of the Top 100 innovators by MIT Technology Review in 2003.

The company has received $24 million in venture backing from, among others, August Capital and New Enterprise Associates.

 

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