washingtonpost.com  > Technology > Washtech


Exploring the Next Wave in Optics

By A Weekly Look at the Region's Newest Companies
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2004; Page E05

A Sterling company called 4Wave is trying to turn its nanotechnology materials into big things in the optical component market.

"We're in the business of developing materials that are created one atomic layer at a time," said Trey Middleton, vice president of business development for 4Wave. The company's technology, called biased target deposition, is used to create optical films for 4Wave's main product: a multi-filter chip. The chip is the heart of a multiplexer, a device that filters the light used in high-speed fiber optic cables to transmit the zeroes and ones of computer language.

4Wave President Sami Antrazi, left, and Vice President Trey Middleton are reflected in a silicon wafer, which is used to test multi-filter chips. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

_____In Profile_____
In Profile

Name: 4Wave

Location: Sterling

Big idea: Develops passive optical components through a thin film deposition technique called biased target deposition

Founded: 2000

Web site: www.4waveinc.com

Who's in charge: Sami Antrazi, president

Funding: 4Wave, which has been largely self-funded, is seeking investment funding. The company received a $100,000 award from the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology's Growth Acceleration Program fund and two awards from the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Advanced Technology Program totaling $2.5 million.

Employees: All nine of the company's employees met while working for Commonwealth Scientific. When that company was sold, they founded 4Wave. They intend to expand to as many as 60 people over the next four years.

Big-name clients: 4Wave sells to companies that make transceivers for optical equipment, including Emcore Corp., Intel Corp., E2O Communications Inc., Opnext Inc., Finisar Corp. and Agilent Technologies.

Origin of company name: "We always thought of getting into the optics business," Antrazi said, and four seemed the key number. "There are four characteristics to optics: the incident light, the standing light, the reflected light and the transmitted light. It's worked out well because our chip has four filters on it and it filters four ways."

A multiplexer combines four wavelengths, each capable of transmitting 2.5 gigabytes of data per second over fiber-optic cable, so that the fiber can transmit 10 GB per second altogether, Middleton said.

4Wave's technology is rooted in basic physics. "If you look at the sun you see white light," company President Sami Antrazi said. "A rainbow is multiple colors. Each color represents a wavelength. You can transmit data down each color at 2.5 gigabytes per second. To run the four colors down the fiber you have to combine them. Our chip combines the light and separates the light. On the transmitting end you have a multiplexer to combine the light. On the receiving end you have a demultiplexer to break up the light to get data out of it. "

4Wave's executives said their biggest challenge has been its lack of financial resources. "We got great reception and traction in the venture community, but they were concerned about when the market would be realized," Antrazi said. "In the 2000 time frame a lot of venture guys took a bloodbath."

Middleton says the company has three orders for its multiplexers so far and will begin shipping in March. The company expects $2 million in revenue this year and predicts it can be a $45 million company in five years.

"The whole market is being realized today," Middleton said. "I think we have a double barrier to entry to a competitor -- a patent portfolio that protects our products and the ability to make them. We didn't share the secret sauce on how we came about making this equipment." 4Wave's main competitor is a German company called Cube Optics, which Middleton says purchases the optical filters from another company and cuts them down in size. "It's a very labor-intensive activity," Middleton said. "We make it from scratch."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company