SCIENCE & ENGINEERING NEWS
Bothell, WASH. — An optical telecommunications breakthrough developed by a University of Washington chemistry professor has spawned a new company to develop and market the technology, and could lead to establishment of a center at the UW for the growing science of photonics.
Microvision Inc. of Bothell, Wash., today announced it has formed a majority-owned subsidiary, Lumera Corp., as part of a technology license agreement with the university. Under the agreement, the UW will own stock in Lumera and hold a board position. Lumera will also support advanced research programs in photonics at the UW under the direction of chemistry Professor Larry Dalton.
In addition, the university will receive royalties, potentially amounting to millions of dollars, from the sale of any devices developed using the technology.
Microvision is itself a product of UW research, founded in 1993 to commercialize Virtual Retinal Display technology, in which images are drawn directly on the viewer’s retina.
Dalton, a recognized leader in photonics, and a number of his colleagues published a report in the journal Science earlier this year detailing their breakthrough in designing new polymers that appear to achieve speed and capacity increases so great that they will revolutionize telecommunications, data processing, sensing and display technologies.
Devices using the polymers can translate electrical signals into optical signals at rates up to 100 gigabits per second. The materials can achieve information-processing speeds as much as 10 times greater than those of current electronic devices, and they require a fraction of a volt of electricity to operate.
“The technology is very exciting to a lot of people and it has the promise of having a tremendous impact on telecommunications and related industries,” said Alvin Kwiram, UW vice provost for research. “What he has created here is a new kind of material that has very favorable properties for a number of applications that would affect a number of important industry sectors.”
Dalton assumed a UW faculty position two years ago and still divides his time between Seattle and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Since his arrival, other leaders in the photonics field have come to the UW, including Alex Jen, a professor of materials science and engineering; Samson Jenekhe, a professor of chemical engineering and chemistry; and Scott Dunham, an associate professor of electrical engineering. The four are working toward establishment of a center for photonics at the UW, which could make the Pacific Northwest a leader in a technology widely regarded as the cutting edge for the 21st century. A photonics center is a funding priority for the university, Kwiram said.
“Suddenly the University of Washington can claim leadership in this area, which two years ago didn’t exist here,” said Jen, who is principal investigator on several photonics center proposals. “I think this is a great opportunity in the next six months or so, and it will be critical to concentrate on this.”
Jen regards the deal with Lumera as a catalyst for the center. “It’s extremely important because it’s a significant commitment by industry to begin a company based on this technology,” he said.
“It’s typical of what we’d like to do, to spin off a company based on the technology, to find an investor who wants to do that,” he said.
When Dalton’s work was published in Science, researchers knew the technology could be used in a variety of applications, from flat-panel displays to automobile radar systems to help avoid collisions. In the short time since then, Dalton said, there have been refinements and improvements, and new applications have been found. For instance, ultrafast 180-degree beam steering is now possible, so light can be projected in a half-circle arc to create three-dimensional holographic images.
Dalton expects universities’ role in achieving such breakthroughs to continue growing. “Large corporations are no longer as interested in long-term research and development. They are more interested in licensing technologies developed at universities and small companies,” he said.
“The bottom line is the world has changed and the university is changing to provide service to a dramatically different world,” Dalton said. “You only have to look around to realize that you couldn’t even have trained 20 years ago for some of the jobs that are the most lucrative and important today.”
That has benefited students who, even as undergraduates, often are deeply involved in research.
“In our youth today, we see a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit,” Dalton said. “They don’t want to grind through college and then become a cog in a massive industrial machine. This attitude has a tremendous impact on students’ performance.”