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Blaze's dreams go up in smoke

04 Aug 2004

Crystal Fibre acquires the assets of rival photonic-crystal fiber maker BlazePhotonics for $3.3 million.

Crystal-Fibre, the Danish developer of photonic crystal fiber (PCF), has acquired the assets of its arch rival BlazePhotonics for $3.3 million.

Information gathered by Optics.org suggests that BlazePhotonics, a start-up located at the University of Bath, UK, was struggling financially and failed to secure further funding from its investors -- Questor, Celtic House, Sulis and the University.

Blaze was founded in 2001 by Philip Russell, a pioneer of PCF research, and several of his colleagues from the University of Bath (Jonathan Knight, Tim Birks and Brian Mangan) in order to commercialise PCF technology.

Blaze's only funding to date was $9 million it received from its investors in March 2001. However, it seems that no more funding was forthcoming and due to insufficient revenue Blaze was heading for bankruptcy.

The deal means that Crystal Fibre will gain ownership of all of BlazePhotonics' intellectual property (IP) as well as its fabrication equipment.

"We and Blaze have the two strongest patent positions in this area so by acquiring their assets we will have by far the largest patent portfolio for PCF," said Crystal Fibre's René Kristiansen. "The other attraction is their work on air-guiding fibers where they have worked extensively and achieved some very good results. We will transfer those processes and technology."

According to Kristiansen, some equipment as well as three of Blaze's employees will shortly be moving to Crystal's facilities in Birkerod, just north of Copenhagen. Kristiansen would not name the three individuals but confirmed that none of Blaze's management team, several of whom have academic positions at the University of Bath, will be joining Crystal Fibre.

"Everybody currently in University positions is unaffected by this event," confirmed Birks. "Although the University and Blaze were closely linked we were always separate organizations. We have absolutely no intention of stopping our research into photonic crystal fibre at Bath."

Crystal Fibre says that it will continue to support Blaze's advertised product range. What is not clear is what will happen to Blaze's distribution agreement with ThorLabs as Crystal Fibre already has a similar agreement in place with Newport.

During the past three years, the Bath firm had developed a suite of PCF products (hollow core PCF, endlessly singlemode PCF, highly nonlinear PCF and polarization maintaining PCF) for applications such as supercontinuum generation and short-pulse delivery.

It also achieved a number of world-firsts. In autumn 2003 it claimed to become the first company to offer hollow-core PCF for sale (its website lists prices of $50 to $400 per meter). Six months later at the Optical Fiber Communication show (OFC 2004) in California it presented results for the world's lowest loss hollow-core PCF with a loss of just 1.7 dB/km -- a big improvement on Corning's previous record of 13 dB/km.

Although still a long way from the 0.15 dB/km figure of commercial grade singlemode fiber (SMF-28), the results caused a flurry of excitement in the research community. At the time, they gave hope to the belief that perhaps PCF could actually go beyond the loss of normal fiber and perhaps wire up optical networks of the future.

In the long term Blaze was hoping to cash in on that large potential market, however sadly it seems that in the short term the revenue coming from other applications was insufficient. The big question now is can Crystal Fibre avoid a similar fate?

Kristiansen clearly believes that it can. "Blaze followed a strategy of developing products for a potential future market and their revenue was low and that made it difficult for them to continue on their own," he said. "Our strategy is quite different and we've been talking to customers from day one."

Oliver Graydon is editor of Optics.org and Opto & Laser Europe magazine.

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