The optics professor

Professor Asher A. Friesem of the Weizmann Institute Physics of Complex Systems Department is the academic father of Israels optics ventures. He has discovered that todays innovations were developed in his lab for 15-20 years, reveals future innovations, and continues his research, with or without the hype. He also has no itch to found a start-up and make money.

There are rare moments in the life of the scientific community, which usually is involved in esoteric research far from the madding crowd, when an outsider suddenly decides that its research is The Next Big Thing that the world needs now.

One of the fields in which this phenomenonoccurs is optics research. For decades, optics was the realm of physicists. In Israel, at the research labs at the Weizmann Institute, Technion Israel Institute of Technology, and elsewhere,mad scientists talked about all kinds of laser inventions, crystals, and other fascinating arcane subjects that only they cared about. Here and there, optic gurus might pop up, providing Israel with a few physicists and engineers whofound their way to the budding telecom industry. Optics was still mainly the realm of exotic research.

Then came the hype. Professors suddenly discovered there were industrial applicationsfor academic research. They left the academic nest, founded start-ups, raised millions of dollars, and dreamed of untold riches. They joined the optics boom, finding work in the more than 60 Israeli optics start-ups. In 1999-2000 alone, over 30 optics start-ups were founded. Despite the telecom crisis and write-offs by venture capital funds, many of these start-ups are still around. A careful perusal of them shows that there is a professor behind almost every promising start-up.

Academia is better

For example, the technology of Israeli start-ups GWS Photonics and PlanOp Planar Opticsis based on patents derived from academic research. Their products are a direct follow-up of work done by research teams under Professor Asher A. Friesem of the Weizmann Institute Physics of Complex Systems Department.

Friesem is a veteran of decades of optics research. His laboratory has given birth to a long string of entrepreneurs. He says that recently, the guys at the Weizmann Institute threw me a birthday party. 60-70 former students came. Since I did a lot of basic research, many of them went to the high-tech industry, where some were very successful and others rather less so. I'm proud of them all. I continue to teach, I have doctoral students whom I hope will also succeed.

Friesem needed a long moment to pull out from the recesses of his memory the list of graduates who went from his labs to entrepreneurial careers. The incomplete list includes the founders of LaserComm, Kilo-Lambda, Atrica, and YAFO Networks, a US company. YAFO Networks founder and CTO Henry Yaffe was a former student. Freisam also mentions MRV Communications (Nasdaq: MRVC) founder Zeev Bar Noy, and is proud of students who joined companies such as El-Op Electro-Optics Industries, an Israeli optics pioneer, Elbit (ELBT), SDL Technologies, and ECI Telecom (Nasdaq: ECIL).

The optics hype launched a wave of academic research into optics. The academic research was far more wide-ranging than the industrial applications derivedfrom it in recent years. The research activity was also carried out in fields other than communications, where demand was lower. The end of the optics hype should not affect this activity. Optics communications research will also continue, regardless of the industrys condition. It will simply move out of the limelight.

I'm very pleased that optics has developed in many directions in recent years, directions I thought it should follow, says Freisam. There was astounding development in Israel, and not only in optic communications. There's also optic display, processes, and robotics. Optics always had a role worldwide. What happened in the past year or two was that investments were made in everything, creating an unsustainable bubble. The bubble has deflated somewhat, but I have no doubt it will last. The amount of information that has to be transmitted will continue to grow, and there will be a need for optics in communications and other fields. I still predict a future for optics. Optics hasnt completely disappeared, as some people think.

Globes: Do you ever feel like youve lost out on something? You could have used your patents to found your own start-up and make millions

Friesem: The patents were developed together with the students. Therefore, such as in the case of GWS Photonics, the university receives part of the rights or a percentage of the companys equity. Some of this also reaches the scientists, and some have become wealthy. I am not. I enjoy teaching and like that I can more or less do the optics research I want. People work hard in industry. It's not that my work is easy; you have to be dedicated and work long hours, which sometimes hurts family life.

You were never tempted to found a company?

More money would not hurt, but I enjoy the academic atmosphere.

Once they laughed

To what extent does current research in Israel take industry needs into account?

When I immigrated to Israel in 1972, I actually wanted to work in industry, but it was hard to talk to them. They wanted immediate solutions, and would not look at the long term. People work on projects for four or five years at university, and only then publish results. That's why there were no strong relations then. Lately, industry began hiring young men and women with higher degrees, and became more open to academic research, so the relationship is stronger."

The government also encourages this integration and invests serious money in long-term research. The government does notdirect the research we more or less continue to do what we want but it encourages certain directions, such as optics, microelectronics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. If you work in these fields, you can get government research funding. So even though industry and academia have different needs, there's more openness and integration now. I hope it will continue.

Hasnt this integration created an ethical problem that hurts pure research? Couldnt you, for example, as someone who advises a group like Apax Partners, be suspected of a conflict of interest while you lead academic research?

There's a lot of debate in industry on this matter. It's not actually related to my work at Apax. It's more relevant to instances where professors work in a company or found a start-up. Then the question arises about whether they exploited their students. There could be a conflict of interests, but there are quite rigid laws preventing it. We usually sign research contracts with Israeli industries, ministries, or foreign companies that have future research programs. If there's no academic content, we wouldnt do it.

It's also much easier now to develop industrial applications.

But they always belong to the university. Last year, the Weizmann Institute earned $40 million from patents or equity in companies that were sold. The university plows this income back into research. It doesn't go into someones pocket.

Newlab developments

Friesem has connections to two start-ups exemplifying the integration of academia and industry. GWS Photonics was founded by Dr. David Rosenblatt, Avner Sharon, and Shmuel Glasberg, who worked under Friesem for a decade, developing revolutionary optic inter-chip communications technology.

After completing the research project, they decided to turn the invention into a commercial product. Friesems prior acquaintance with Apax Partners Ventures (Israel) partner Allan (Hanoch) Barkat brought them to the fund, which was enthusiastic, evenapplyingits Entrepreneur in Residence modelto them. For three months, the entrepreneurs sat in Apaxs offices before founding GWS Photonics. The company raised $5 million at an estimated company value of $20 million, after money, from Apax and Redwood Venture Partners of the US a year ago. The company is now close to launching its first product prototype, a tunable laser.

The second company utilizing patents developed at Friesems lab,PlanOp Planar Optics, has not yet really attracted any attention. PlanOp was founded by Yehuda Niv, and began operations about a year ago. PlanOp uses a Weizmann Institute patent, developed by a team led by Friesem, that can impress a large number of sophisticated threads, working like lenses, onto a thin plastic strip or glass plate. The light is trapped by the first thread, similarly to what happens in a fiber optic cable, which allows the construction of an optics system using elements smaller than a few millimeters, says Friesem.

One of the applications from this patent is the placing of an element into cellular telephones that will show a virtual display. It's like a virtual reality where there's a tiny television that sends information via mirrors and lenses to the eye, which enlarges it. This technology can also be used for telerobotics, such as distance surgery. Great flexibility can be obtained through the use of special glasses; the pictures displayed are synchronized, with pictures coming from a distance. Other applications include teleconferencing and assistance for people with motor disabilities.

The patents used by PlanOp and GWS Photonics are the results of research that began years ago. The implication is that anyone who wants to get an idea about future industrial applications of optics research need only peek at Friesem and his colleagues labs.

There is a National Committee for Infrastructure in Electro-Optics and Microelectronics in Israel. Friesem is a member. The committee has declared several development targets for the coming years, including electro-optic storage and signal processing, electro-optic methods and devices for biology and medicine, active vision and picture comprehension, micromechanical devices and processes, bioelectrical sensors, and other wonders.

Since this research is beyond the comprehension of the average person, Friesem is trying to shed some light on them. He explains that the bioelectronic sensors are used to solve the problem of light sensitivityto varying wavelengths, laser tuning, and material parameters.

These and other wonders may yet come out of Friesems lab in the years ahead, possibly signifying the next optic revolution. Meanwhile, he continues to grind out the research, whether or not there is any hype attached to the optics field.

Published by Israel's Business Arena on 9 January 2002

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