GWS Photonics: Were not relying on dreams

GWS Photonics cofounder and president David Rosenblatt combined the silicon chip with light, making it possible to manufacture a tunable laser, which enables light to transmit digital information. GWS Photonics was set up for the purpose a start-up with a unique product, suppliers, and customers. GWS is not concerned over the state of the communications market.

Go try to keep readers attention with complex sentences about silicon chips, lines on the chips so thin it is difficult to see them with the naked eye, and how they connect to light. Try to explain that light is actually a way of transmitting bits of communications information. Light is so natural, so omnipresent, that it is difficult to compare it to a highway or a physical cable. We are aware that copper wire in cables links telephones or connects televisions to the cable network. It is hard for us to imagine that messages travel via light.

When I had practically given up trying to find a way to simplify the story of GWS Photonics technology and company, I resorted to fairy tales. This is a tale of the silicon chip and light an almost perfect couple whose true love was left unfulfilled because of how banal and common communications problems. As in every fairy tale, this one, too, has a happy ending, with the chip and light finding a common language. Imagine what flowed between the two millions of bits of information, and immensely powerful emotions.

The source of this exciting new technology was cofounder and president David Rosenblatts postdoctoral thesis about optical communications between silicon chips, which he submitted during his work at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot ten years ago, during the Gulf War. The starting point was a comprehensive look at the silicon chip industry, Rosenblatt explains. What drives this industry is Moores Law, which says that the width of the lines on the chip is halved every two years. According to forecasts made ten years ago, we should have now reached bandwidth of 0.1 wavelengths. This represents both a problem and a challenge.

The more you thin the lines, the faster the chips work. They process more information and create demand for information at faster rates. The technology creates an appetite for data in the chip field, and a way has to be found to satisfy that appetite. This is a problem in every system to which the chip is connected. It is what actually drives the entire communications field, not telephony and calls. The ability to process information creates a need to transmit information at faster rates.

We looked at the end product, at the chip itself, and we asked how data could be transmitted at a faster rate to the chip, without wires. Wires are a problem. We searched for a way to exploit the source of the problem the fact that the wires are becoming thinner in order to solve it. The problem is speed. Its hard to transmit information over wires. Instead of wires, we tried to do it with light. We found a structure that uses thin lines and enables the chip to communicate with light.

Globes: What structure is that?

Rosenblatt: A structure of lines that reflects light onto the chip and turns it into signals. The structures were always much smaller than the wavelength of light, which were one micron wide. Current lines have a width one tenth of that. When the structures are that small, you can use small changes in the properties of the materials to modulate the light.

Then we asked ourselves what would happen if instead of a small change in the material's properties, we made a larger change with other materials, thereby turning them into a different device. Thats how we make an optical scanner that scans light waves.

It was a natural continuation of the research. We began with materials that caused small changes and continued with materials that cause larger changes. We eventually reached a structure that could be used as an optical scanner. That is the basis of our product. That is the companys core technology.

What is its importance?

Flexibility is very important in todays optical communications. Systems must adapt themselves to the demand for bandwidth. Components must have a flexible capacity to change the wavelength and the channel in which they operate. There are several examples of such components, which we can apply on the basis of the companys core technology.

Give some examples.

A tunable laser, for example, whose wavelength can be tuned. Another example is filters that remove channels (colors) from the fiber. There are more outlandish products. One is a wavelength converter, which can take one channel in one color and shift it to another channel, without electronics. We can develop such a device, but it is not yet in development.

Is there no other such product?

No, currently there is no such product in optics.

A market in excess of $1 billion

Rosenblatt, Avner Sharon, and Shmuel Glassberg founded GWS Photonics less than a year ago, in May 2000, on the basis of this technology. The company raised about $5 million last year from venture capital fund Apax Israel and US fund Venture Partners. The company value for the round was not disclosed, but was estimated at $20 million, after money. Rosenblatt, who currently runs the companys US activities, is visiting Israel to help put together the product prototype.

What is you first product?

We are working on a tunable laser. The market for it is over $1 billion.

This laser device supplies the light entering the optical fiber, where it is modulated into pulses, which in effect constitute digital information. After the light ray enters the fiber, it expands, loses power, and does not break up when it encounters interference, such as fog or physical obstacles. The technology for transmitting a light wave (which is actually a color, and is also called a channel) on an optical fiber is called WDM. The newer technology, which allows several colors to be transmitted on one fiber, is called DWDM.

The problem with DWDM concerns costs. As of now, 40 colors can be transmitted per fiber, which may soon be increased to 80-100. Every color needs its own laser, which in turn requires maintaining a large number of lasers at various points.. A tunable laser would solve the problem. One such laser could replace the 100 lasers required for the 100 colors on one fiber.

Were not relying on dreams, Rosenblatt says. There is a large market for the tunable laser. The product has suppliers and customers. We know which customers its worthwhile to approach.

If the tunable laser is so essential, I imagine you are not the only ones developing it.

Indeed, we are not the only ones. It will become an industry.

Are the other products based on the same technology?

No. There are several technologies.

Are other companies working on the same technology?

No. This is something exclusive to the Weizmann Institute. We have patents. The company has a know-how agreement with the body responsible for patents at the Weizmann Institute, which is giving us exclusive rights.

At what stage of development are you?

We are working on putting together the prototype in the Ramat Gan laboratory.

What does the product itself look like?

It is smaller than a cigarette pack. Something between a pack of cigarettes and a box of matches.

When will we be able to look at one?

Well have a prototype in a few months and a finished product within a year, which we will be able to send to potential customers for beta trials.

When will you be acquired?

Thats a good question. At this stage, we are building a company for marketing and sales. There is a US parent company and an Israeli subsidiary for R&D. Later there will also be a marketing concern in the US.

Arent you concerned over the state of the communications market? What was taken for granted six months ago today no longer applies.

Im an optimist.

I have never met anyone in a start-up who wasnt an optimist. Theres no getting away from it, though company values are declining sharply, not to mention the companies that have closed or gotten into financing difficulties. Things arent easy today.

Im a very cautious optimist. We arent counting on systems of the future. Companies like Lucent and Nortel are now obliged to throw away some of their investments. The customer can see a massive return on an investment in our product. The market conditions are irrelevant. It is simply worthwhile.

What about other products later.

The tunable laser is only the opening shot. It enables us to develop technologies and connections.

Published by Israel's Business Arena on March 21, 2001

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