Silicon photonics integration enables cost-effective, low-power optical interconnects in high-performance computing (HPC) systems and data centers. Scintil Photonics, a spinoff from CEA-Leti, has raised €13.5 million to accelerate the manufacturing and commercialization of its III-V silicon photonic ICs for optical interconnects.
Scintil Photonics was founded in 2018 to develop and commercialize a technology for integrating lasers onto silicon ICs developed by CEA-Leti. Its proprietary technology enables seamless and extensive integration of active and passive optical components — lasers, modulators, photodetectors, and resonant filters — combining by Si and InP/III-V materials.
“To achieve optical communication, you need, for the transmitter side, lasers, high-speed modulators, and waveguides, and for the receiver side, you need photodetectors to convert light back into the electrical domain,” Sylvie Menezo, CEO and founder of Scintil Photonics, told EE Times Europe.
“Because you integrate lasers, you reduce the loss, increase the system efficiency, and deliver high performance,” said Menezo. “You also solve the problem of cost, because these circuits are produced in CMOS commercial foundries and rely on a well-established supply chain that delivers in volumes.”
Scintil has developed the Backside-on-BOX approach, where unprocessed InP/III-V dies are bonded on the backside of processed silicon-on-insulators wafers. “Imagine you pattern your silicon photonics IC in a standard process, in a standard fab,” said Menezo. “When it’s done, you flip it on a silicon handle, and you integrate your lasers on the backside of the wafer.”
She continued, “To make good lasers, you need III-V compound semiconductors. All lasers from the optical communication industry were made from III-V compound (eg, gallium arsenide or indium phosphide) semiconductor substrate. Here, we just bond this material on the backside of silicon to make efficient lasers.”
At this year’s OFC, Scintil Photonics presented a 1,600-Gbit/s prototype IC. It integrates silicon modulators and germanium photodetectors supporting 56 GBaud PAM 4, with integrated III-V-optical amplifiers. This IC technology can deliver sustainable bit rates through parallelization and the increase of Baudrates at a competitive cost per gigabit per second, the startup claims.
“If you take data centers and HPC deployments in data centers, you have 400 Gbits/s; that’s four times 100 Gbits/s, and four lasers are required,” said Menezo. “The next generation is 800 Gbits/s, and eight lasers are needed. It’s painful to package eight lasers, so integration is key to parallelize and achieve the next-generation standards, especially since 3,200 Gbits/s is now discussed. We love parallelization because this requires many lasers, and this is when integrated circuit technology is key and highly required.”
A pioneer in silicon photonics research 20 years ago, CEA-Leti has developed an expertise in the design, integration, and testing of devices, including germanium-on-silicon photodetectors and heterogeneous III-V-on-silicon lasers. The research institute is now scaling silicon photonics for terabit-per-second communications.
In 2010, Menezo joined CEA-Leti as a research engineer and successfully managed the Silicon Photonics Lab and the business development activities in integrated photonics.
When she joined CEA-Leti, Menezo had only focused on III-V compound semiconductor materials. She found it hard to believe that silicon photonics technology could be developed, but she quickly realized “they were really visionary to say that we needed lasers on silicon and to come up with industrial perspectives. I then negotiated a license with Leti to exploit the technology through a startup.”
Scintil’s technology is protected by a portfolio of 20 patents licensed from Leti. Since inception, the startup has applied for more than 20 patents.
Scintil claims its photonic ICs address the requirements for the high volume, high data rate, and small form factor needed for pluggable modules or co-packaged optics for data centers, HPC systems, and 5G front-haul and enterprise access.
“We are working for three leading-edge customers, mostly in HPC, 5G, and data center segments, and have already delivered first prototypes to some of them,” said Menezo.
When asked about quantum photonics, Menezo said Scintil has identified opportunities. Yet she continued, “Our primary concern is to sell products for optical communications, and we focus on high-volume segments, but we support emerging quantum photonics solutions. When our circuits can be used without changing the layout, we will be happy to sample these circuits for quantum applications.”
Mass production by 2024
The €13.5 million round of financing aims to accelerate the industrialization and global commercialization of Scintil’s products.
“We will use the funds to take the technology to mass production by the second half of 2024 and extend our customer base,” said Menezo. “It was key to partner with leading-edge foundry and packaging partners right from the beginning.”
Menezo declined to provide the name of its partners.
Led by Robert Bosch Venture Capital, this second round includes the participation of existing investors Supernova Invest, Innovacom, and Bpifrance.
In 2019, Scintil raised €4 million. And prior to its establishment, the startup project, incubated at CEA-Leti, received initial funding as a winner of i-Lab 2018, a French government-sponsored innovation competition.
Silicon photonics can solve the interconnect bottlenecks associated with Moore’s law and extend its significantly lifetime.
“Optics is the continuation of electronics,” said Menezo. “If you can emit, route, and filter light, there is a huge opportunity for a new range of applications.”
Europe has a long legacy in optics and photonics, but we need to communicate more on their impact on our day-to-day life to further boost the industry, said Menezo. “We have a strong expertise and workforce in photonics in Europe. We need to renew these skills, and I think a startup has a mission to transmit this knowledge to young people.”
The startup employs 15 people and is currently hiring with diversity in mind.
Scintil has been working closely with the University of Toronto and has opened a local subsidiary to expand its commercial footprint in North America.