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Plastics to power start-up's optics

Optical component start-up Lumera completes a $24 million round of funding led by Cisco Systems, the latest such company to attract an investment from the networking giant.

    Optical component start-up Lumera completed a $24 million round of funding Wednesday led by Cisco Systems, the latest such company to attract an investment from the networking giant.

    Other investors include former Netscape Communications Chief Executive Jim Barksdale's investment firm The Barksdale Group, Acorn Ventures, WRF Capital, some current and former executives of Qualcomm, XO Communications, Teledesic and Microvision. Several individual "angel" investors also contributed.

    For Cisco, the investment is just the latest by the communications equipment powerhouse in an optical parts maker. Cisco took a stake in Gemfire earlier this month and has made several other optical investments recently.

    For its part, Lumera plans to use the money to fund development of its first prototype products. "The investment means we can stay on track to achieve commercialization in 2002," Lumera President Rick Rutkowski said.

    The company believes its proprietary polymer material--essentially plastic--is the key to building faster fiber-optic networks. The start-up company is aiming to be the first to commercialize the use of polymers in optical communications gear, though other companies including Pacific Wave Industries and Ipitek are working with similar polymer compounds.

    Lumera is developing optical components, which it hopes to sell to networking equipment makers. The components use light-sensitive molecules that are embedded in plastic polymers to shuttle data traffic at the blazing speed of 100 gigabits per second (Gbps). Most next-generation optical systems are expected to carry traffic at 40Gbps.

    The technology, in addition to being something of a novelty, in theory can route data at much faster rates than existing technologies, proponents say. In addition, lower power consumption by the polymer-based products can reduce costs and the heat generated by some of today's high-end communications gear, according to the technology's backers. As a result, the company believes it can integrate many optical subsystems into a single device.

    "Why are they chasing these improvements in components? We're just scratching the surface of the types of applications we're going to use," said Robert Rosenberg, president at Insight Research, a communications industry research firm. "Anything that reduces size and power consumption...is extremely important."

    How it works
    Fiber-optic networks send voice and Internet traffic as pulses of multicolored, though undetectable, light over fishing line-like glass strands. Recent advances in optical technology have led to an explosion of new communications carrier networks with immense bandwidth, or capacity. But as the Internet grows so does demand for bandwidth--and thus optical research and development has increased.

    At the heart of the Lumera technology are chromophores, light-sensitive organic molecules.

    These chromophores, which react when electrically stimulated, are blended into a chemically synthesized plastic. The plastic is adhered to a semiconductor chip, which, when electrically charged, aligns the chromophores giving them the ability to block light or let it pass.

    The technology is capable of routing or switching fiber-optic signals, and proponents believe the plastic materials can do so faster, and while consuming less power, than with current optical switching mechanisms. The technology also is faster at converting data from electrical to optical signals.

    Larry Dalton, a professor at the University of Washington, conducted much of the research. Now Lumera intends to develop optical modulator components based on his findings.

    The company, a subsidiary of Microvision, which makes imaging products and retinal scanners, is building prototypes of its first modulator. Lumera's modulator components are expected to be available for testing later this year and commercially available by mid-year 2002, according to Lumera executives.