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Test market provides revenue while sector rebounds

02/23/2004 08:31 AM

Continuum Photonics Inc. in Billerica surprised the optical world in the summer of 2002 when it managed to raise $14.5 million to build optical subsystems. It was the nadir of the optical market collapse.

The company forged ahead, however, and this week will show off its first product at the Optical Fiber Conference in Los Angeles. But it’s not an optical switching subsystem.

“About 18 months ago, we saw that we not only had performance specs that that we needed for the telecom market,” said Aaron Bent, vice president of marketing and business development for Continuum. “But that it was also perfect for the test and measurement market.”

Continuum is attacking the testing market with its DirectLight IG Series, optical automation system products that aim to allow engineers to reconfigure test networks with just a few keystrokes instead of pulling and reinserting cables.

“The qualification cycles for network products can take a year, and while there are significant RFPs out there, it still takes a year to go through field trials and testing,” said Jeffrey Farmer, chief executive at Continuum.

The sales cycle for the testing marketplace is significantly shorter, Farmer said.

“Obviously, they’d go after the testing market because (all-optical) switches aren’t being deployed mainstream,” said Patrick Matthews, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group. “A company like Continuum is looking for other ways to make revenue until it comes around.”

Carriers are just beginning to understand how all-optical switches would physically work within their networks and when it might be appropriate to begin installing them, Matthews added.

Continuum hasn’t given up on optical switching, however. Far from it.

In the second quarter of this year, Continuum expects to begin system vendor evaluations of its DirectLight TL Series, which are low-cost matrix switches for integration into multiservice provision platforms, wave division multiplexing transport, and core grooming switches.

And in the fourth quarter, Continuum will introduce a low-cost fiber distribution switch aimed at the last-mile fiber networks that Verizon Communications and other large carriers have said they plan to build.

Continuum’s core technology centers around beam steering, a concept that has been around since the mid-1980s, but has not historically been practical for use in optical switches.

Beam steering uses piezoelectric materials to accurately reflect lasers without resorting to three-dimensional microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) mirrors.

Continuum has integrated a piezoelectric actuator with MEMS structures to produce a subsystem that uses free space optics instead of fiber to switch beams. The company also claims its product has low loss, no sub-micro packaging and no sliding parts.

Continuum has been working with these materials since the 1990s, when it was making military hardware and high-end tennis rackets.

In addition, as the company releases its first product, CEO Farmer is working on a new, $12 million round of funding.

“I have a commitment from all our major VCs and am talking to new VCs,” Farmer said.

The company has raised money from Flagship Ventures, Prism Venture Partners, Harris & Harris, GE Capital and the Massachusetts Technology Development Corp.

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