In a perfect world, the breakthroughs accomplished in university research labs would quickly find their way to industry. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) would patent the technology. Investors would put forth millions to grow a spin-off company into an economic force in the community. The researchers would serve as advisors to the company while continuing their ground-breaking work in the college’s labs.
We all know the world is not perfect but in the realm of technology transfer, the Reed Center for Photonics comes close. In April Alfalight, Inc., an early stage, high-power, pump diode laser company, secured an additional $10 million in equipment financing for its Madison and Montreal, Canada-based operations. In December 2000 the company closed its second venture funding round at $28 million, after receiving $6.1 million in first-round venture funding just seven months before.
Founded in 1998, Alfalight designs, develops, manufactures and packages high-power diode lasers for the optical fiber communications market. The company’s products are based on technology developed in the College of Engineering’s Reed Center for Photonics by Philip Dunham Reed Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Dan Botez and Assistant Professor Luke Mawst. Mawst, Botez, former Reed Center graduate student Tom Earles and Alfalight President and CEO Eric Apfelbach joined forces to commercialize the technology.
Semiconductor lasers are responsible for much of the explosion in telecommunications. They provide a simple and inexpensive way to amplify digital signals throughout the world’s millions of miles of fiber-optic cables. In 1996, Botez’s group made technological breakthroughs that have the potential to radically improve the reliability as well as the information-handling capability of fiber-optic networks.
“We’re able to get twice the power that had previously been achieved and potentially we’ll be able to get five times the coherent power of existing semiconductor lasers,” Botez says. His team developed novel designs and fabrication processes/techniques for high-power, aluminum-free diode lasers in the 0.73 to 0.98-micron range. This had been a goal in the semiconductor laser field for many years because aluminum-free lasers are more reliable, powerful and efficient than common aluminum-gallium-arsenide diode lasers.
The increased power allows significantly larger amounts of information to be handled in the explosively expanding optical communications field. Other products pursued by Alfalight include lasers to be used in medical applications: cancer treatment and the removal of arterial plaque.
“This is an ideal case study of the UW technology transfer team supporting a high-tech start up,” says College of Engineering Assistant Dean for Research & Technology Transfer Larry Casper. “The laser technology is exclusively licensed from WARF. University-Industry Relations. provided funding for proof of concept. Alfalight got its start in the MG&E Innovation Center in the University Research Park. The faculty continue their research in the College of Engineering. We work continuously to develop the strategies that help researchers put their innovations to work. It’s wonderful when all the elements come together as well as they have here.”