San Diego Startup’s Breakthrough Is Making Lasers “the Color of Heat”

5/12/09Follow @bvbigelow

One understandable reaction to Daylight Solutions, a 23-employee startup that has developed a breakthrough in semiconductor-based, mid-infrared laser technology, might be to ask, “Where did this company come from?”

The suburban San Diego company says its high-power lasers, about the size of a small box of matches, can be used in medical diagnostics, in environmental and industrial monitoring, and even to thwart anti-aircraft missiles targeting a commercial jetliner or military aircraft. Its technology was impressive enough to garner a Prism Award for innovation earlier this year from SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics.

One clue to the company’s genealogy is hanging on the wall behind the receptionist’s counter at Daylight Solutions’ modest headquarters in Poway, CA. It is a lithograph of the San Diego State University campus, where founding CEO Timothy Day received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in physics—and where his father, Tom Day, was university president from 1978 to 1996. Tim Day completed his academic studies at Stanford University, where he got a Ph.D in Electrical Engineering, before joining a San Jose, CA-based startup called New Focus in 1990.

New Focus represents the other half of Daylight Solutions’ origins. In addition to Day, New Focus was founded by Milton Chang, a renowned Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Robert Marsland, and Frank Luecke to provide “simply better” photonic tools. New Focus introduced its first tunable laser in 1992, and became a leading supplier of lasers used in fiber optics test-and-measurement work for the telecom industry and in non-telecom research. After New Focus raised about $555 million through two stock offerings in 2000, Chang, the founding CEO, left to start Incubic, the Menlo Park, CA, venture capital firm.

Tim Day

Tim Day

Day told me he decided to return to San Diego after San Jose, CA-based Bookham, now known as Oclaro, acquired New Focus in 2004 for $338 million. He joined forces with Paul Larson, who had directed ASIC programs for Qualcomm, to develop a new type of laser, based on semiconductor-based lasers that had been developed for fiber optic networks in the telecom industry. “We pulled together our own investors among friends and family and started operations in January 2005,” Day said.

The opportunity they saw was in developing a laser that operates at mid-infrared wavelengths, from 3 um to 12 um—a part of the spectrum previously untapped by laser technology. In lay terms, Day says Daylight Solutions’ lasers operate at wavelengths beyond visible light that are “the color of heat. It’s the color that snakes can see.” It became clear to them within months that the technology was technically feasible. And by mid-2006, using a semiconductor composed of hundreds of layers of Indium gallium arsenide—with each layer only about 10 atoms thick—they created ECqcL, the company’s patented “External Cavity quantum cascade Laser.”

Daylight Solutions can manufacture the laser to emit … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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