Packaging technology for datacom moves toward commercialization

July 8, 2022
Ivan Nikitski, EPIC’s photonics technology manager, talks to Oded Raz, cofounder of PhotonX Networks, a Technical University of Eindhoven spinoff that aims to commercialize packaging technology for datacom products.

Ivan Nikitski: How was PhotonX Networks established?

Oded Raz: In 2006, after completing a Ph.D. in optical fibers and microwave photonics at Tel Aviv University, I came to work as a postdoc researcher at the Technical University of Eindhoven (TU/e) in the Netherlands. My Ph.D. focused on using glass fiber instead of traditional microwave structures to build a beam shaper prototype, as well as the development of specific technologies for signal and range detection. I continued working in these areas at TU/e, becoming an assistant professor in 2009 and an associate professor in 2016. Since then, I’ve worked mainly on optical interconnects, novel packaging technologies, and smart materials for optical devices.

In 2008, my colleague Chunhui Li and I created PhotonX Networks as a spinoff from the university to commercialize the packaging concepts we’d developed.

We started out exploring how best to connect electronic and photonic devices. This is one of the biggest challenges in the industry, especially as many new-generation devices require very high-speed connections not possible with traditional metal wire bonds. We began by stacking chips atop each other and trying to connect them vertically, but found it impractical for applications.

In 2014, we experimented with new materials that could be used as a baseline carrier for all the chips. This proved more successful and led to the understanding of how the use of silicon wafers as interposers could help in packaging photonic devices. After further trial and error, we created all sorts of structures on silicon by etching or deposition—creating any topography on the chip. This was followed by the creation of what we call silicon vias, which allow light through the substrate when its naturally absorbed. Use of metal layers could facilitate high-speed performance at 4060 GHz and above. Silicon interposers provided two key advantages: we could mitigate thermal coupling, and the silicon interposer lent itself to low-cost wafer production.

IN: What were the main challenges along the way?

OR: When I started working on this research, I didn’t know it was going to be commercially interesting. I hoped for the best, but when I stumbled across a technology with commercial potential, the challenge was continuing my research and university work while simultaneously promoting the technology to industry.

As a result, my main challenges were time management and to constantly evaluate my priorities. Our technology has the potential to make a real-world impact, but I don’t know if I’m prepared to leave academia and devote myself 100% to the company to make it happen. Working in my own company will be exciting, but I really love my academia job because I have a lot of freedom. I haven’t had to make this critical decision yet, but expect I will within the next couple of years.

As far as PhotonX Networks, getting the first round of funding will be critical. Neither Chunhui nor I have business know-how and we don’t have time to drive the company forward. Fortunately, we found someone to serve as CEO, but he and the technical people are working unpaid. This can’t go on forever. We need to start employing people particularly for marketing and business development tasks. But before making promises to investors and recruiting people, Chunhui and I need to decide if we’re in it for the long haul.

IN: How do you envision the future?

OR: We have a couple of potential customers and, if we manage to secure funding, I think the company will grow. After all, the technology is very compelling. But we will need someone to chase companies to convince them to sit down and give us their dream scenarios of what they need. Once that happens, I believe we can produce interposers with the potential to become a very important part of the fabrication value chain.

We see our main growth markets as anywhere where high frequency is critical; for example, the transceiver interposer market, millimeter-wave for car-to-car communication, and the use of the platform itself as part of a lab-on-the-chip device.

IN: If you started again, what would you do differently?

OR: Its not in my character to look back and say I should have done this or lived my life a different way. In fact, over the last 15 years things have gone quite well. I moved to the Netherlands with my family. We enjoy living here and I have a job I really love, so I think I’ve been very fortunate and wouldn’t do anything fundamentally different.

IN: What’s your advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs?

OR: Working in academia can be very restricted and not very many people make it for a variety of reasons. But if you are lucky enough to get a position as a professor, try to make your research mean something not just for the financial gains, but to make a real-world impact and improve society. So, if you have an innovative technology in your hands, be brave and try to exploit it commercially. A lot of it comes down to cultural expectations. In Israel, for example, almost every physics university professor runs at least five startups. It’s similar in America, where professors are encouraged to spend time outside of the university because they dont get paid in the summer. In Europe, we’re much more pampered by having job security and access to university and state funding. But even then, theres nothing to lose by trying because in the worst case, you will spend a couple of years working a bit harder and still have a safety net.

About the Author

Ivan Nikitski

Dr. Ivan Nikitski serves as a Photonics Technology Expert at EPIC, the European Photonics Industry Consortium, which stands as the world's largest association of photonics companies with over 800 corporate members. Ivan earned his Ph.D. with honors in photonics from ICFO, the Institute of Photonic Sciences. After successfully transitioning to an expert role in the semiconductor industry in France, he now provides a special blend of academic and industrial views on integrated photonics, optoelectronics, advanced materials, and quantum technologies.

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