A Top Spin-Off with Hertz

The Fraunhofer Society’s Heinrich Hertz Institut has enabled u²t Photonics AG to take a Leap with “Safety Net” measures and more

100 Gbit/s coherent photoreceivers Photo: u²t Photonics AG

Fifteen years ago, their names had not yet been combined into a formula. Today, the company u²t Photonics AG is in their possession. In early 1998, Andreas Umbach, Günter Unterbörsch and Dirk Trommer were still working in the laboratory of Fraunhofer’s Heinrich Hertz Institut (HHI), constructing optical components. At that time, the HHI was struggling to deal with the loss of major research customers and therefore promoted the formation of spin-offs; one of them being that developed by Andreas Umbach and his colleagues. “A safety net was developed for us so that we could jump in at the deep end”, says the physicist.

While most startup companies first have to find a way to acquire further capital, Mr. Umbach and his co-workers were able to get started right away. The HHI provided a laboratory for a fee, arranged an exclusive licensing agreement with u²t Photonics and also guaranteed Mr. Umbach and his colleagues a path to return to work scientifically in case the spin-off faulted. It did work out though. Today, Mr. Umbach manages roughly 150 employees and is the head of a successful company with a subsidiary in England.

u²t Photonics operates in an industry most people only know from pure e-commerce companies like Google, Facebook et al.. In the field of fast data transfer, the further you move down the supply chain the more invisible the companies become to the public. “Our visibility is extremely low, but the effect created by this relatively small industry is enormous for society”, adds Mr. Umbach, who has specialized in manufacturing very fast optical receivers and detectors, without which any You Tube video could not find its way through fiber-optic networks around the world.

In the meantime, u²t Photonics has become a global player, whose export share is over 90 percent. The safety net provided by HHI is no longer needed by the company, but the cooperation between the two is still strong. “The HHI was a good stepping stone. We are still researching together and using their manufacturing line for our semiconductor production”, says Mr. Umbach. Although only being seldom in the laboratory, he does not regret the shift from scientist to entrepreneur.
“I can still work innovatively. We are creating something that is purchased and included in many products. That is continuously a great feeling.”

Research with Social Significance

We click cheerfully through the normal day, however, the clicks on Google, Facebook and their associates are not free. They cost energy. Transporting a bit from Berlin to Oregon (the location of the Facebook server farm) consumes power. Because the number of Internet connections is increasing and the amount of data growing, researchers are working on making transmission as efficient as possible.

Accomplishing this requires the work of nano-physicists, which harnesses the atomic particles of light for transmitting the data. The timing of the photon is interrupted, which slowly triggers the electron. Where data was once transported over copper cables, lasers now send our Google inquiries as bits and bytes through fiber-optic cables.
Today, research is improving the “interconnects”, meaning those points where electrical signals are converted into light using drivers and lasers, or vice-versa by means of a receiver back into an electrical signal.

Computers require a lot of energy to move this information back and forth between processors and memory. If the present generation of computers remained unchanged, two atomic plants would have to be constructed by each mainframe in order to feed the energy needs. Since this is still an absurd idea, scientists are working on converting the data highways into data freeways.

Susanne Hörr
Kluge Köpfe 2012