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Jan. 30, 2001



Gary Evans, professor of electrical engineering at SMU

DALLAS (SMU) -- A group of high technology entrepreneurs has opened an office on the Southern Methodist University campus in what university officials hope will be the first of many such partnerships with local industry.

SMU has signed an agreement with Dallas-based Photodigm Inc. to make several of its faculty members and facilities available to the company in exchange for an equity position in the company and some annual research funding. This is the first time SMU has been given an equity position in a company.

"These kind of arrangements are good for the university," said U. Narayan Bhat, dean of research and graduate studies. "I hope there will be other agreements of this kind."

Photodigm is developing products for the growing field of photonics, which involves the transmission of information using light. Telecommunications firms use photonics to transmit voice and data over fiber-optic cables.

Specifically, Photodigm is developing a new technology that would enable semiconductor lasers to be manufactured much less expensively. Semiconductor lasers are about the size of a grain of salt and are used in long-haul data transmission and data communications such as transmitting data between computers via fiber. They also are used in consumer electronics such as CD and DVD players.

The market for semiconductor lasers was estimated at $4.4 billion dollars last year, said Jack Mattis, Photodigm's vice president for business development. Of this amount, approximately $2.5 billion was concentrated in lasers used in the telecommunications industry, and this market segment is projected to grow at a rate of more than 30 percent a year.

Currently, the high-end lasers used for telecommunications are difficult and expensive to manufacture. Photodigm believes that its technology can significantly reduce the cost of semiconductor lasers and open new high-volume markets such as fiber-optic cable to the home.

In addition to reducing manufacturing costs, the technology being developed by Photodigm has the potential to increase the capacity of the fiber-optic cables that carry voice and data.

"Ten years ago we were just putting one wavelength down the fiber. Now we are looking at using 40, 80 or even 160 wavelengths in a single fiber," said Gary Evans, a professor of electrical engineering at SMU.

The idea for the technology Photodigm is developing came from Evans, who has been involved with research on semiconductor lasers since he was a graduate student at California Institute of Technology.

Photodigm was founded in early 2000 after market research showed that there is a large demand for this new technology in the area of semiconductor lasers. Evans and Jay Kirk, electrical engineering laboratory manager, were among the five founders of the company. Investors in the company now include Triquint Semiconductor, Arkoma Venture Partners, Compass Technology Partners and Corning Innovation Ventures, a division of Corning Inc.

SMU faculty members who have joined the project include electrical engineering professor Jerome Butler and mechanical engineering professor Gemunu Happawana. Several graduate students also have been hired to help conduct research for the company. SMU currently has three different contracts to do research for Photodigm.

"The technology and science of semiconductor lasers is very broad and requires extensive knowledge of materials, mathematics, chemistry, optics, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, semiconductor processing, packaging, testing, telecommunications and instrumentation so having a close relationship with SMU will give us access to on-campus experts in these fields," said Photodigm President and CEO John Spencer. "There are tremendous resources at SMU that are enabling us to put together this company much more quickly and cost effectively than if we didn't have the SMU relationship."

Spencer and Mattis have set up an office in SMU's Mechanical Engineering Annex on Airline Drive.

Stephen Szygenda, dean of the SMU School of Engineering, said the Photodigm partnership is breaking ground for a new and innovative cooperative effort between the school and industry to facilitate technology transfer.

"This new model provides an opportunity for faculty to be entrepreneurial and still remain in an academic environment where the institution retains their expertise. The ultimate winners are the students who benefit from world-class faculty who also have contacts in industry."