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Zephyr Photonics Eyes High-tech Markets

Optoelectronics developer, Zephyr Photonics, has set its sights on datacoms and high performance computing markets as it launches a fab and foundry business, reports Compound Semiconductor.

Zephyr's facility is home to III-V MBE growth, e-beam lithography, automated wafer probing, wafer lapping, die attach and more.
Early this year, Zephyr Photonics, launched a semiconductor fab and foundry unit. At a time when mainstream epi-wafer makers are stream-lining assets and the industry consolidates, why would an organisation, that has historically developed military-specification components, make the bold move of launching this new business?

The Nevada-based optoelectronics developer will not exactly be turning around wafers in the thousands, like epi-wafer powerhouse IQE. However, the company will exploit its ITAR-compliant, ISO:9001:2008 certified manufacturing facility to deliver high performance devices to a range of - hopefully - up and coming markets.

Boasting a 'growing staff of PhDs', chief executive Tom Steding says: “Our semiconductor fabrication and foundry services business includes a 10,000 square foot cleanroom, and [will] match the growing demands of fabless semiconductor companies." So what next?

Defence focus

For more than 25 years, Zephyr Photonics - previously called OptiComp - had fabricated InP and GaAs-based photonics devices for the US government. During this time the company developed a vertically-integrated manufacturing facility, honing its III-V MBE growth processes as well as fabricating and assembling harsh environment optoelectronic modules based on proprietary wide-temperature VCSELs.

“We might have used our electron beam lithography to [structure] photonic crystals or lay down a short run of integrated circuit traces onto a structure to create a 3D stack," says Zac Clark, director of Fab Services. “So we have this long history of processing independently from the rest of a manufacturing line... to create any kind of device."

Come 2011, the business had been acquired by Torch Hill Investment Partners, a Washington DC private equity firm that wanted to deliver the company's products to the wider market-place. Steding, ex-chief executive of software security business, Red Condor, was brought in to head up Zephyr, and now he believes the time has come to ramp up activity on all fronts.

As he highlights, the company has two key streams of revenue, for which its foundry services are crucial. First, its components business includes wide temperature VCSELs, detectors and optical benches, designed for harsh environments. For example, the company claims its VCSELs can operate at 5Gbps at 150degC or higher, enabling optical interconnects in applications beyond today's commercial 850nm VCSELs.

And then the company also uses these components to manufacture sub-system components and modules including active optical cables and transceivers.

“Our foundry services is the factory for the components business," says Steding. “It keeps us at the leading edge of these technologies, but also supplies these critical components to our module business."

But where are the growing markets? Looking beyond defence applications, the chief executive believes the high performance computing industry will primarily fuel demand for its business.

As well as focusing on reducing cost per Gbps, this sector demands components that can tolerate high temperatures and process high 10Gbps per channel data rates. Steding is certain Zephyr's products will fit the bill. For example, its VCSELs feature strained InGaAs quantum well active regions for improved gain, while proprietary distributed Bragg reflector designs promise the necessary performance in harsh conditions.

“On board optical interconnects are going to be vital to high performance computing. Our high temperature components can handle the energy densities and high temperatures of these systems," he adds.

And as, Steding's colleague, Tim McAllister, vice president of business development highlights: “The whole silicon photonics market place is opening up. We are looking at partnerships with customers that are seeing an increasing demand for the high density [integration of] VCSELs to support these chips."

But it's not just high performance computing and data communications; the oil and gas, and mining industries are additional target markets. According to Steding, the company's VCSEL designs enable interconnects that operate to 155degC. “This resilience to temperature and vibration... [means they are] suited to extreme heat conditions in down hole oil drilling applications,"  he says.

And the company claims to be already seeing results. “Since we made this announcement, we've had calls from small companies that have been working at a university level but now need more fabrications," claims McAllister. “There is quite a gap between the wafer processing capabilities a university provides and the services and equipment we have been able to put together following years of advanced photonics research."

So 2013 looks like an interesting year for the Zephyr team. Steding asserts the foundry has a lot of spare capacity and to its business is ready to ramp up activities to meet new demand.

Meanwhile McAllister has an eye on what he describes as numerous start-ups and other businesses working in high speed data applications, high performance computing as well infra-red applications for consumer electronics. “After years of development, we have a number of patents and more on the way that will help these companies cut their time to market."

Chief executive, Tom Steding, believes high performance computing will be a key market for his company.

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