FEATURE
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A life in lasers

Multiwave Photonics is the result of one man's lifetime of dedication to lasers, as Warren Clark discovers

For Jose Salcedo, now CEO of Multiwave Photonics, lasers were part of life since the age of 19, when he built his first laser. Such was his fascination that he set up his own home laboratory and built a >50W CO2 laser, and published his first scientific paper on lasers while still an undergraduate.

On graduation from the University of Porto in his native Portugal, Salcedo grasped the opportunity to pursue further studies with NATO and Fullbright scholarships at Stanford University in the US, where he completed an MSc under the tutelage of Professor Robert Byer (who has since founded many reputable laser companies). His PhD (in picosecond spectroscopy) followed, this time under the guidance of another photonics legend, Professor Anthony Siegman. Both of these mentors have input into Multiwave Photonics, with Byer as a current investor and on the Business Advisory Board and Siegman on the Scientific Advisory Board.

Salcedo stayed in the US for several years, completing an IBM postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford, and eventually working for Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, in the field of ultrafast lasers. The homeland soon came calling, though, in the form of a $3m grant from Portugal Telecom to extend a recently founded private non-profit R&D institute, INESC, to his hometown of Porto, with a strong focus on fibre optics.

Salcedo’s first steps towards the area of expertise in which his company now specialises began in 1990, when he set up a research centre on fibre optic technology and fibre lasers – at a time when fibre lasers were only in their infancy.

His first venture into the commercial world was to establish a company called ENT in 1995, which provided integrated voice, video and data transmission via fibre optic cable, and was aimed specifically at utility distribution companies. ‘It was a solution for their own internal use initially,’ says Salcedo, ‘and one big advantage was that they had no right-of-way issues as they already had the infrastructure in place. It simply meant laying an extra cable and providing them with the required multiplexing technology at drop-points, all developed at ENT. Ultimately, the idea was that these utility companies would then be able to rent out the excess network transmission capacity to telecoms companies, an intention that worked well.’

The success of this venture saw it becoming fully integrated in the Efacec group in Portugal, a national electrical power group. Then, in September 2003, Salcedo established Multiwave Photonics.

‘We set up Multiwave with a focus on optical sources based in fibre-optic technology,’ says Salcedo, ‘paying particular attention to fibre lasers, as well as speciality products for sectors such as medical. Now, our business is 75 per cent in fibre lasers and 25 per cent in the speciality product market.

‘We began with a product roadmap that included various building blocks that are essential to building next-generation fibre lasers, such as speciality fibre components, microfabrication, sophisticated analogue and digital real-time control electronics, firmware and user interfaces, packaging expertise and advanced laser development, measurement and test capabilities.

‘Adopting a reusable technology building block approach to optimise the development process, improve reliability and minimise costs, the product roadmap started at the module level and gradually evolved to full fibre laser system level. As such, products such as laser diode drivers, polarisation maintaining and single polarisation optical amplifiers, speciality ASE sources and pulsed fibre lasers for industrial, remote sensing and medical applications, all gradually found their natural place on the roadmap.’

One of the major differentiators on which Multiwave builds its strategy is the development of controlling technology, appropriate packaging and effective thermal management. ‘All of these factors were developed by the expertise of the individuals concerned,’ says Salcedo. ‘Between us, we have built hundreds of different types of fibre lasers, so by the time we started Multiwave we all knew exactly what was involved in creating a product.

‘We also knew that providing flexibility in the control of the laser was as important as the quality of the laser itself. We think that the combination of performance and control provides a much higher level of flexibility and value for our customers, to a degree that most laser systems currently available are unable to provide. Indeed, this flexibility means that, in some cases, just one of our products can replace the functions of two or three others. Hopefully, our fibre lasers will become invisible building blocks for our customers to generate value.’

A particular strength of Multiwave, according to Salcedo, is its location in northern Portugal, on the outskirts of Porto. ‘We’re very close to the fibre optic research institution that I helped set up,’ he says, ‘and there is a lot of local, world-class quality talent for an optics company such as ours. I think there are few places in the world with a better talent pool available. Indeed, the availability of this talent pool is a key reason why Porto was a logical and convenient choice for establishing Multiwave.’

The Multiwave headquarters is a custom-designed facility featuring a 10k clean room for fibre optic component fabrication and packaging, as well as facilities for prototyping, integration and test. The company now has 25 employees, eight of whom have PhDs, and there are additional offices in Germany and the US, offering business development, sales and marketing support.

In spite of the worldwide economic downturn, Salcedo is ‘viewing the future with great optimism’. ‘One of the consequences of the economic situation,’ he continues, ‘is that great people are finding themselves out of work. Thus exceptionally valuable people are all of a sudden available on the job market, and being able to recruit that talent is a major boost to a company such as Multiwave.’

The company’s strategy for growth follows two routes: organic growth and acquisition. ‘Our organic growth strategy involves us adding to our existing databases of customers, developing more OEM relationships and partnerships with system integrators, and becoming a key fibre laser supplier,’ says Salcedo. ‘Acquisition can obviously help speed up growth. We are in the fortunate position of being a well-funded company, complete with supportive investors – a combination of institutions and individuals – and that means we are well placed to act on acquisition opportunities, should they arise.’

While remaining positive and upbeat about the future, Salcedo is also realistic about the capabilities of the company as it stands. ‘We don’t have the resources to target mass markets,’ he says, ‘so our best strategy is to focus on niche applications such as speciality materials processing, laser ranging, Lidar, OCT and so on. We’re also keen to develop partnerships and technology relationships with other companies worldwide, most likely much larger than our own.

‘Although we are a comparatively small company, a key philosophy is for us to develop solutions as a result of building a trusting relationship with a customer. Trust plays a key role for us – and trust goes both ways. For our part, we need to provide products that are of the highest possible quality and value to the customer. We must be responsive, flexible, and move fast. We have all those characteristics, and that puts us in a very good position for the future.’