A small Albuquerque startup’s ground-breaking optical
communications technology has earned the backing of international telecommunications giants.
Skorpios Technologies Inc. launched in 2009 with homegrown technology that allows it to merge silicon with traditional materials used in optical communications, a fundamental breakthrough that many industry heavyweights have failed to achieve. That could radically reduce production costs for high-speed data transfer operations – by up to fivefold compared to today’s technologies, according to the company – because silicon is far less expensive and easier to manipulate for high-volume manufacturing than other materials used in optics chips.
The company has attracted more than $23 million in venture capital, including hefty investments from such giants as Nokia Siemens Networks, Deutsche Telekom of Germany and Sweden’s Ericcson. And now, with its technology proven, it’s moved from research and development to aggressively marketing its optical chips and devices.
“We started generating our first income at the beginning of the year,” said President and CEO Stephen Krasulick. “We have a lot of engagement with investors and customers to develop things for them. There’s broad interest in our technology and what it enables.”
That’s lightning speed by any standard for a small, homegrown startup. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg in what New Mexico has to offer in the field of optics and photonics.
Photonics is basically the study and manipulation of light, or photons, to create new capabilities in everything from data transfer to imaging and sensing. Optics tools – such as detectors, sensors, lasers, lenses and mirrors – help harness that energy.
Optics, photonics hub
In the past two to three decades, the state has become a bustling center for not just research and
development of light-based technologies, but also for grassroots industrial engineering capability and activity.
A robust manufacturing industry has emerged here, largely inspired by work at the state’s national labs and research universities, around which scores of companies large and small have sprung up to create a true industry cluster with national and international recognition.
So much so that the University of New Mexico is now part of an interstate team of five universities that is on the shortlist of places to become a federally backed “center of excellence” in integrated photonics manufacturing. The winning team, to be announced in July, will have access to $110 million in government matching funds to create public-private partnerships to build new technologies and optics-based businesses.
And, as the industry grows, New Mexico’s optics and photonics engineering and manufacturing achievements are outgrowing dependency on the labs and federal dollars to generate numerous independent startups like Skorpios, as well as small, medium and large firms that offer products and services nationally and internationally, said Jim McNally, chair of the New Mexico Optics Association.
“It’s still not completely independent of the labs, but it’s no longer solely dependent on them either,” McNally said.
The association published its first comprehensive study of the local industry in February, which showed that 96 optics and photonics firms currently operate in New Mexico, employing 6,234 people. Together, they account for 8 percent of the state’s manufacturing revenue. But with 81 percent of the companies concentrated in the Albuquerque metropolitan area, the industry’s impact here is much larger, accounting for 22 percent of manufacturing revenues in Bernalillo County and 25 percent of the manufacturing workforce.
Local industry is now poised to take a leadership role in the rapidly emerging area of optics and photonics technology, which in the past few decades has contributed to a revolution in everything from telecommunications to modern medicine, robotics, automotive improvements, displays such as flat-screen TVs, and satellite imaging and communications.
The labs connection
The development of lasers in the 1960s led to fiber optics breakthroughs in the 1980s and 1990s that helped
develop the Internet and modern high-speed communications, as well as modern defense systems that use lasers to destroy targets, and sensing and imaging systems for surveillance or detection of chemical weapons or biohazards.
More recently, light technologies have been adapted for medical applications in things like laser surgery, and detecting and diagnosing illnesses. Photonics, as well, provide the backbone for the burgeoning use of solar generation to power homes, businesses and even cities.
Research by both Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory has played a central role from the start in developing these core technologies, and spurring the private industry in New Mexico to provide the products and services needed by the labs.
But it’s the Air Force Research Laboratory, located at Kirtland Air Force Base, that has played perhaps the key role in building local industry because of the broad work it does in directed energy research, and development for space applications and use on the battlefield. The AFRL, in cooperation with homegrown New Mexico engineering firms and industry giants like Boeing and Raytheon, has developed advanced laser systems that could soon be mounted on Navy ships to shoot down missiles and on ground vehicles to destroy things like improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The work has also led to advanced solar power systems, laser-based telecommunications, and ground-breaking sensing and measuring tools for satellites and other space vehicles.
And much of that technology development has, in turn, contributed to new or improved photonics for commercial applications, said David Hostutler, senior research scientist with AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate.
“We do a great deal of in-house research, but we also reach outside the fence a lot to tap the knowledge base surrounding us,” Hostutler said. “Businesses are smart and they go where the money is, and that’s helped many small firms in Albuquerque grow into larger businesses. The AFRL in that sense has really spun out the local photonics hub.”
Searching for breakthroughs
The AFRL and the other labs have also worked closely with UNM to develop the skilled workforce needed to staff the photonics industry, and to work on joint research and development projects. UNM, in turn, has built up its own expertise to become a center of excellence in its own right for optics and photonics, particularly through its Center for High Technology Materials, which since the 1980s has conducted in-depth research with lasers and the manipulation of materials at the nanoscale.
The center’s acquisition in 2010 of a $1.5 million molecular beam epitaxy machine made it one of only two universities in the country that can build semiconductor nanocrystals one atom at a time in layers for research and development of devices with unique capabilities in optics and photonics, particularly in the area of infrared sensing and imaging. The machine, for example, has allowed the center to create “quantum dots” – incredibly small, three-dimensional structures that can manipulate light in unique ways for use in infrared cameras and detectors.
That work could lead to more technology breakthroughs, such as devices that allow pilots to see through clouds or firefighters to see through smoke, said CHTM Director Sanjay Krishna.
It’s a key reason why UNM is part of the interstate team of five universities now competing for federal funds to set up a consortium of integrated photonics manufacturing hubs that would allow the government, academia and industry to work together to improve optics and photonics technology. Also on UNM’s team are the University of Southern California, several in the University of California system, the University of Arizona and Ohio State University.
The goal of the consortium is to lower manufacturing costs for photonics technology the way the semiconductor industry has cut the cost of microelectronics production to make things like personal computers affordable, said Joe Cecchi, dean of UNM’s School of Engineering.
“It could really expand the commercial use of photonics to make those technologies far more accessible,” Cecchi said.
As new technologies emerge through public-private partnerships, it could also lead to a lot more business development and good-paying jobs in New Mexico, Krishna said.