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CIP gives research centre a new lease of life

21 Sep 2004

The Centre for Integrated Photonics describes itself as an open-style development facility for industry and academia alike. Jacqueline Hewett spoke to the UK firm's management team about its plans to become a self-sustaining business.

From Opto & Laser Europe October 2004

There was little Christmas cheer for photonics researchers in Ipswich in the south-east of England at the end of 2002. With the industry still in a steep downward spiral, Corning announced the closure of its research facilities in the area, marking the end of an era.

But salvation came in a rather unexpected form in the new year. The East of England Development Agency (EEDA) stepped in with a bold plan which would see it buy Corning's assets and allow the prestigious Martlesham Heath Photonics research group to remain open. Now owned by EEDA, the facility has become a business called the Centre for Integrated Photonics (CIP).

Housing in excess of £40m (€59m) of high-tech equipment, CIP offers services ranging from precision optical coatings and glass machining through to III-V device fabrication and data-transmission testing to greater than 100 Gbit/s. CIP opens its doors to both academic and industrial customers.

The centre's heritage is long and prestigious. Photonics activity started in the 1970s when the centre was part of British Telecom's (BT's) research labs. It was recognized as one of the principal telecoms research labs alongside Bell Labs in the US and NTT in Japan. But then things started to change.

"In 2000, BT started to pull back from hardware development and that resulted in them looking for a buyer for the photonics group," explains Neil Weston, CIP's vice-president of sales and marketing. "Corning was chosen from a number of suitors to own the centre and they acquired it in 2000."

During the telecoms boom, Weston reckons Corning invested around £20m to replace equipment and hire staff. Then came the industry's dramatic U-turn. "Over the course of 2001 and 2002, Corning was retrenching from its telecoms activities. They had put a lot of value into the centre and kept it open right up till the end of 2002 when they decided they couldn't hold onto it anymore," he says.

Broad knowledge It was then that EEDA entered the equation. The agency's remit is to spend government money on what it believes is important to the region. Determined not to let the facility slip through its fingers, EEDA started talking to Corning about how the centre could be kept open for industry and universities in the UK and Europe.

"EEDA bought the assets from Corning for a nominal value," says Stephen Holton, the CEO of CIP. "It was a very amicable transfer. There were certain elements of IP that were transferred. Corning gave us as much as they reasonably could in the circumstances."

CIP was launched commercially on 1 January 2004 and acts as a service provider for both universities and industry. Its funds come from three sources: EEDA, involvement in European Union and UK Research Council projects, and commercial contracts.

But as Holton explains, CIP's goal is to become a self-sustaining business. "Over the next three to four years, we want to become a sustainable enterprise with income coming from university research and industry. EEDA funding will go to zero," he says.

CIP also finds itself in the strange position of operating as a not-for-profit organization. "Any income is reinvested into the centre. EEDA is the sole owner of CIP and we have no shareholders that we have to give a dividend to," explains Holton. "We can offer very good value to industry and to universities for the work that we do."

With £40m of kit under one roof (see box), what exactly have the 32 staff of CIP got to offer? First and foremost, the centre houses an eight-wafer Aixtron MOVPE reactor, so it can see the fabrication of III-V devices through from the initial material design and growth to pilot-scale packaging.

"We could act as a foundry for InP devices for III-V companies," says Weston. "We can do development on our equipment and know that it is reproducible at full scale. That is the advantage of the research and pilot-scale production that we have got."

The same is true for CIP's plasma-assisted deposition coatings kit. "It is production-quality equipment being used in a research mode," Weston says. "We have a number of contracts to produce high-quality coatings."

As well as compound-semiconductor expertise, CIP has a significant amount of experience in silica-on-silicon waveguides - the technology behind planar lightwave circuits (PLCs). PLC technology was initially developed at the centre before it was transferred to Kymata (now GemFire based in Livingstone, Scotland) in the 1990s.

One offshoot of the PLC research is glass processing and etching. For example, CIP can chemically etch 30-50µm-deep channels in glass slides to make biomedical components such as microfluidic channel plates. These are used to react small amounts of substances for drug discovery.

CIP is also benefiting from BT and Corning's investment in testing kit. "We can test to a maximum speed of 160 Gbit/s," says Holton. "It's an enormous strength and nobody else really has this sort of capability ready to be used by industry."

Making money CIP is also a specialist in the hybrid integration of photonic devices. These skills are being put to good use as part of a European Commission Framework Six project called MUFINS which started last month. The aim is to develop photonic integrated arrays of switches that have a range of signal-processing functions at speeds up to 40Gbit/s.

CIP is working with the RACT Institute of Athens, Telecom Italia, Siemens, Essex and Bristol universities in the UK, Eindhoven University in the Netherlands and the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany on the project.

Since opening in January, CIP has also become involved in a £1.65m project funded by the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The Photonic Component Research for Integrated Nanotechnology and Communications Environment (PRINCE) project involves groups at University College London (UCL), Imperial College London and the universities of Cambridge and Essex.

The project runs for 15 months and £1.24m is being sub-contracted to CIP by UCL. The partners plan to develop a range of optical-communication components including ultrafast electro-absorption modulators (EAMs), semiconductor optical amplifiers (SOAs) for regeneration and switching, and passive waveguide devices as well as hybrid and monolithic integrated components.

Crucially for CIP, the university partners have approached them to help manufacture the devices. "We are not allowed to apply for EPSRC grants," explains Weston. "The universities apply for the grant and factor in the cost of using our facilities. We act as a subcontractor as part of the grant. We also offer our facilities as part of PhD programmes."

On the industrial side of things, CIP has teamed up with BT to develop photonic technology to reduce the cost of fibre-to-the-home. At the 30th European Conference on Optical Communication (ECOC), which was held in Stockholm last month, both parties reported prototype optical transmitter components, based on CIP's EAMs, capable of 10Gbit/s transmission over 100km.

CIP also used ECOC to launch a small range of research products. The initial selection of 1.55µm devices includes EAMs operating at 10 and 40Gbit/s, a superluminescent diode and a range of SOAs.

"These are high-spec devices and are not going to be used in mass production," Holton told Opto & Laser Europe. "The big players will need these to continue their in-house R&D. I don't see us as a volume manufacturer of standard products. We are concentrating on high-value low numbers for specific R&D purposes rather than mass markets."

Having attracted around 40 industrial customers through their doors during their first year, Holton and Weston are both optimistic about the future. With a cost base of around £2.5m, CIP is confident it can break even in 2005. But one thing is certain - CIP is in a "use it or lose it" situation.

Facilities available at CIP CIP houses state-of-the-art equipment worth £40m. Here's a rundown of what's on offer.

• Semiconductor epitaxy and growth - multiwafer MOVPE and MBE

• Device design and modelling - in-house and commercial software

• A planar silica foundry - 6inch flame hydrolysis deposition process

• A hybrid integration platform offering passive micron alignment tolerances

• Silicon micromachining

• Glass machining and microfluidic plate fabrication

• III-V semiconductor device processing - 320 m2 of class 10,000 clean room with e-beam nanolithography capabilities

• Optical coatings - ion-assisted antireflection and narrowband coatings

• Prototype packaging and feasibility demonstration - high-speed custom packaging with optical interfaces

• Advanced measurement and characterization techniques - communication test-bed system, testing to greater than 100Gbit/s; full analytical suite of test equipment including SEM, X-ray, photoluminescence and reliability measurement.

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