New Speeds on the e-Frontier

OneChip Photonics Inc. aims to deliver the digital trinity of voice, data, and video services at an unprecedented pace

Erin Cooney, a process engineer at OneChip, holds a small yet key component of OneChip’s optical transceiver. The finished transceiver allows unprecedented levels of deployment for fibre-optic communications.

One of the most fundamental rules of business is to find a need and fill it. Jim Hjartarson of OneChip Photonics personifies this concept.

After spending months visiting and conversing with his potential customer base both in Canada and around the globe, Hjartarson was confident the market for a low-cost, fully integrated optical transceiver—which would deliver high-speed voice, data, and video services to billions of homes—was virtually infinite. Fibre to the Home, or FTTH, is poised to become the breakthrough technology of the 21st century.

Did it feel like Christmas to realize his team had the ability to profitably deliver limitless amounts of a product that the entire developing world wants?

“It felt pretty good, yeah,” Hjartarson says, laughing.

The CEO is a 30-year veteran of the telecommunications industry. He was a cofounder and CEO of Catena Networks, later acquired by CIENA Corporation, where he was senior vice president of the Broadband Access Group. Previously, he was cofounder and vice president of the Telecom Design Centre at Cadence Design Systems, and before that, he served as director of access technology at Nortel Networks. A significant number of the key people on his team at OneChip Photonics were also part of Nortel.

5 Questions
with Jim Hjartarson


1. What does innovation mean to OneChip Photonics?
I know that is a straight question, but I am going to give you a trick answer. We are innovation. By its very definition, and by our very existence, we are one and the same.

2. How has the notion of innovation changed?
In the past, innovation referred to “stuff.” Innovation was products: someone created a new product, and people bought it. In the 1980s and 1990s, innovation referred to ideas—software, websites, Google, Facebook. We have broadened the areas in which we can invent.

3. What defines innovation in the 21st century?
Looking forward, you will see innovation occurring in all areas simultaneously. We will have new things, new applications, new forms of communication—a truly multidisciplinary approach to innovation, which will, incidentally, see us find ways to use energy much more efficiently. And I believe you will see fibre optics popping up in places you can’t even imagine right now.

4. Is there a technology or trend that is moving your company forward?
The need to communicate ever-increasing amounts of data. Interconnectivity needs to be dramatically more powerful and faster, yet people will expect the cost to be going down, not up.

5. How do you cultivate a culture of innovation within your company?
You have to dedicate specific resources and specific funds to explore new ideas. If you don’t do this, good people will leave you to go start their own companies.

Optical transceivers, which transmit and receive data using optical fibre rather than electrical wire, are the most critical components in Optical Network Units (ONUs), which reside near or at end-user locations and in Optical Line Terminals (OLTs), which reside at the service provider’s central office. These optical transceivers also make up 30–40 percent of the cost of ONUs and OLTs, which are the key systems in any Passive Optical Network (PON). PONs are the primary means by which service providers deliver FTTH, so their subscribers can take advantage of high-speed, “triple-play” (voice, data, and video) services.

All of the major ONU/OLT system providers want lower-cost transceivers so that they can deploy PONs/FTTH more cost-effectively and more widely.

However, most current PON transceiver providers base their transceivers on discrete optics designs. These designs offer low levels of integration and require manual assembly from multiple parts. There is little technical differentiation among them. Rather, vendors must compete on the basis of who can assemble the parts in a slightly cheaper fashion. And there is little opportunity to further reduce such costs, as labour-cost reduction opportunities are already driven out.

Breaking the current cost-performance barrier required a new technology and a new approach.

That is where OneChip Photonics came into play. Valery Tolstikhin, founder and CTO of the company, and the OneChip team took a new approach with the company’s breakthrough Photonic Integrated Circuit (PIC) technology. OneChip is integrating all the functions required for an optical transceiver onto a single, Indium Phosphide-based chip.

This enables significant improvements over current transceiver designs in terms of cost, quality, reliability, and performance. Further, because of OneChip’s integrated approach, its PIC-based transceivers can be assembled, tested, and manufactured using industry-standard, automated processes and machines, which enable OneChip to rapidly respond to customer needs.

ONU/OLT system providers recognize that fully integrated, PIC-based transceivers are what will enable them to deploy PONs/FTTH more cost-effectively than ever before and to meet consumer and business demand for high-bandwidth voice, data, and video services.

OneChip produces its PIC-based optical transceivers the way Intel produces its processors: using robots in a sealed environment, enabling the reliability and consistency required to mass-produce the devices.

“In the beginning, taking risks is essential,” Hjartarson says. “As you move forward and identify the product you intend to manufacture, and need to find the best manufacturing methods, you want people to be focused on completing that process. At the stage we’re at now, we don’t need new ideas burbling around the place; we need people focused on getting our first products to market. It’s one thing to have a great idea and a great technology, but you’ve got to get the details right.”

Hjartarson feels strongly that negative attitudes can grind progress to a halt. “People tend to get the results they focus on,” he says. “In an environment in which people spend a large part of their time preparing to defend their work against challenge or argument, that energy is not going into the primary project.”

Instead, Hjartarson proffers a different option. “I believe that when a company pours a large amount of energy into developing a ‘Plan B’ in case ‘Plan A’ fails, it is almost guaranteeing the failure of Plan A by this very process,” he says. “You need to know what you want, and commit to putting your energies there.”

OneChip Photonics does not espouse a corporate philosophy, but Hjartarson has his own personal philosophy: “I want to have a good time in business, and I do not want to leave any wreckage behind,” he says. “Sometimes this is not always possible; sometimes, you have to let people go. It’s inevitable. But as a leader, you want to leave people in your trail saying, ‘I’m glad I was part of that.’”