Enschede-based startup Superlight Photonics has developed a broadband-laser chip that can replace the bulky and power-hungry technology currently used in advanced imaging and metrology equipment.
The idea popped into his head while moving the remainder of his belongings from Germany to his new home in Enschede. During his PhD research at the Department of Ultrafast Dynamics at the Max Planck Institute of Multidisciplinary Sciences, Haider Zia became an expert in the field of ‘white’ lasers. As a post-doc at the University of Twente (UT), he continued manipulating photons, but this time they were confined to chips. Suddenly it dawned on him: he could combine his knowledge of both fields to create an on-chip broadband laser.
Initially, Zia thought of his idea as an interesting scientific advance. Only by discussing it with colleagues and at UT group meetings did it occur to him that his invention in integrated photonics could revolutionize a number of industrial and medical imaging techniques. “Once I realized there’s a lot of market potential, I got excited about pushing it forward into industry,” Zia says.
Cees Links shares Zia’s enthusiasm. Links, who famously closed a deal with Apple that’s generally considered to have started the Wi-Fi era, founded fabless Greenpeak Technologies in 2004. Focusing on wireless technologies for IoT and smart home applications, the company was acquired by US multinational Qorvo in 2016. Links stayed with Qorvo until late last year and then decided to start mentoring startups.
After being introduced to Superlight Photonics, Zia’s newly founded company, Links soon realized he wanted to be deeply involved. He joined the startup as CEO last August. Having recently secured seed funding from DeeptechXL and Oost NL and having developed an actual product to demonstrate to potential customers, Zia and Links are now searching for the perfect point of market entry for their on-chip ‘white’ laser.
Black and white
Superlight’s lasers aren’t actually white as they operate in the infrared. It’s a useful analogy, however, because it makes clear that they emit a broad spectrum of light – unlike conventional lasers, which essentially emit a single wavelength. Just like white light consists of a range of colors, the emitted spectrum of Superlight’s so-called supercontinuum lasers spans a broad range of wavelengths of up to a thousand nanometers.
This wide spectrum comes in very handy in certain imaging applications, such as searching for microcracks in metals, eye measurements, detecting skin cancer and ultra-precise positioning measurements. “It’s like going from black-and-white to color TV: it adds a lot of information, enabling more precise and higher-resolution measurement,” says Links.
No wonder a range of companies have already developed supercontinuum lasers of their own, either by using multiple light sources or by scanning through a range of wavelengths by breaking up a single light source using a diffraction grating. The downside of such an approach is that it results in bulky, power-hungry setups. Zia’s ‘superlaser,’ on the other hand, is based on a chip that employs nonlinear optical effects to broaden the output spectrum of a monochromatic laser source. This results in a compact and lightweight device that requires thousands of times less power than any other product currently on the market.
As enticing as that must sound to end-users, Links is under no illusion that customers will soon start breaking down the door to get their hands on Superlight’s product. “We’re facing the classic challenge of startups: which company or market segment is receptive to our proposition? A lot of money has been invested in alternative solutions, which by now are mature and trusted. There’s a resistance to change. I encountered a similar situation pioneering Wi-Fi technology. Network infrastructure companies considered it their core business to put wires in buildings. When someone comes along and says: hey, let’s do things without wires, they’re not particularly excited. They have to completely reinvent themselves,” explains Links.
“We have to break through this wall of vested interests. Talk to customers and end-users and really try to understand their needs. That’s how we’ll figure out which one or two specific applications we can leverage to force our way into the market. Honestly, we don’t yet know which those will be. They probably won’t be in the medical domain, though, since medical products require very long cycles of certification. At the moment, we’re mostly focusing on industrial metrology. Many industrial applications still use halogen lamps as light sources, which will be banned by the European Union in 2028.”
For anything else that Superlight Photonics needs, being immersed in the Dutch Photondelta ecosystem is proving extremely helpful, Zia adds. “For all the potential of integrated photonics, it’s a new and disruptive technology that still requires a lot of effort to mature in terms of supply chain development and access to funding. As an outsider, however, I can honestly say the Netherlands is truly world-leading in that respect. I wouldn’t want to start my business anywhere else.”