28 Sep 2005
Holoeye Photonics is bringing microdisplay technology out of the consumer market and into scientific applications. Jacqueline Hewett spoke to two of the company's founders.
Turning the seed of an idea into a successful business is always a tough proposition. But when you decide to do it under your own steam and without any venture-capital funding, this takes the challenge to a new level. That's the path that Holoeye Photonics of Germany has taken, however, and six years from its inception the company is thriving.
Based in Berlin, Holoeye was founded in 1999 by Sven Krueger, Marcel Rogalla and Stephan Teiwes to exploit their experience in diffractive optic design. Since then the company has broadened its technology base to include spatial light modulators (SLMs) and liquid-crystal-on-silicon (LCoS) microdisplays.
While many firms are employing LCoS exclusively for imaging applications, such as rear-projection televisions, Holoeye is one of the few that is hoping to incorporate the technology into scientific instruments, such as microscopes.
This bold approach has seen the company grow in terms of employees and customer base. Today it has 14 staff, 12 of which are based in Germany while the remaining two are based at the company's US subsidiary in California. It also claims that its SLM technology is being used by more than 130 companies and universities around the world.
Although Holoeye started by designing and supplying micro-optical elements such as diffraction gratings, it quickly realized that it wanted a way to make these components dynamic. "From 2000 we developed a series of SLMs based on different display technologies," said Sven Krueger, the company's CTO.
"We started with transmissive LCDs and then we ended up with the high-resolution reflective LCDs. After that we wanted to offer high-end LCoS," he added. "Our final goal right now is to bring this high-end microdisplay technology out of the commercial consumer electronics market and into the photonics industry."
However, the future hasn't always been so rosy for Holoeye. "We had some tough times in the beginning, but we are now on the step where we can really move forward and get large contracts," said Marcel Rogalla, the company's CEO. "We started off using our own money and six years on we still haven't had any venture-capital funding."
One advantage of this "go it alone" approach is that Holoeye has remained independent and is able to follow its own agenda. "It is important for us, and for some of our customers in areas such as defence, that we are independent," explained Rogalla. "It turns out that the independence we have right now can be a major advantage."
Today the company has a well defined structure revolving around its three technologies. Diffractive optics and SLMs, which modulate the intensity and phase of a beam, are being used predominately in a diverse array of applications in academia. On the other hand, the company's LCoS business has more of an industrial focus on a range of niche display markets.
"One popular application of SLMs over the last couple of years has been optical tweezers," said Krueger. "People use addressable gratings to couple laser light into a microscope, and to trap and manipulate cells. Our technology has been used in this application very successfully. While it is a hot topic, it is still in research."
According to Krueger, another popular research area is coherent wavefront control. Here, adaptive optical elements are used to modulate coherent waveforms, which are then exploited in optical metrology as well as in sensing and space applications.
"One bizarre application is pulse modulation of femtosecond lasers," said Krueger. "A dispersive element can be used as an addressable phase mask to superimpose different phases onto different spectral components of a pulse. People also want to use this spatially on the pulse for materials-processing applications, as well as to change from Gaussian profiles to more top-hat profiles – and diffractive optics and SLMs can do this."
While these applications are all in a research environment, the company is moving into more industrial OEM markets with its LCoS technology. To this end it has set up two crucial agreements: first, a distribution agreement with LCoS expert Brillian of the US; second, a development contract with US optical engine designer Ballista.
"We wanted to have a secure source of high-end LCoS and we ended up making a distribution agreement with Brillian," explained Krueger. "They have the highest resolution and incredible performance from their devices. Now we are distributors we can offer a completely new field of business to our customers. We are using these displays not only in addressable optical elements but also as displays for imaging."
With limited resources of its own, Holoeye also set up an agreement with Ballista so that it could offer a one-stop-shop solution from a sophisticated design right through to a high-end product. And it seems as though this is a perfect combination.
"One customer approached us and asked for a night-vision goggle that incorporates a display, electronics and an optical engine," commented Krueger. "We can figure out the best display and also adapt and customise the electronics. We will use a display from Brillian, and Ballista to create the optical engine. You cannot have all of these resources - we have to team up, but this allows us to compete for a range of contracts."
Holoeye firmly believes that building strong relationships with partners is the best solution for a company with a limit to its financial resources. "We always try to outsource as much as possible but there is no other way," concluded Krueger. "We consult with the customer and we do the final assembly and measurement at our headquarters."
Having made a name for itself and pushed its products into a variety of promising applications, there seems little doubt that Holoeye will continue in the same vein. The company's eagerness to move into challenging applications and its open attitude to developing products with customers looks certain to stand it in good stead for many years to come.