Demystifying USP Lasers
PETALUMA, Calif., Feb. 4, 2008 -- If Barry Schuler has his way, we're on the cusp of a photon revolution.
No stranger to skepticism or speculation, the former AOL executive once described his proudest accomplishment as "confounding the technology elite of Silicon Valley, who thought AOL was doomed because it dumbed down the Internet.” (Business Week, July 2001)
"It's not the technology itself,” he was quoted as saying. “It's the application of technology that's important."
That year, he had just become chairman and CEO of AOL's interactive services unit after the company merged with Time Warner. He stands by that philosophy as the chairman of Raydiance Inc., a California-based ultrashort -pulse (USP) laser startup he has established using technology originally developed by company founder Jeff Bullington (currently on a leave of absence) and Peter Delfyett, PhD, a professor of optics, electronic engineering and physics at University of Central Florida (UCF) Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers, or CREOL, where he now leads an ultrafast-photonics research group.
"When you look at the high-tech explosion of the last 30 years and the hundreds of billions of dollars of value generated, it was all created by harnessing electrons to make microprocessors -- then those ‘computers on a chip’ became powerful, cheap and ubiquitous," Schuler said. "Today they run our lives; they are in our laptops, cell phones, cars, microwave ovens, TVs -- even sneakers. Raydiance believes we are at the beginning of a similar revolution based on photons."
The Raydiance USP technology platform features integrated software control. All key laser parameters are user-controlled via a laptop computer.
He bills Raydiance, which also has offices adjacent to the UCF campus, as the developer of the "world's first compact, cost-effective and fully software-controlled USP laser system" that is "accessible for the development of revolutionary new applications across a wide range of industries.”
The company, started in 2004, raised more than $25 million of venture capital from Draper Fisher Jurvetson, which has also backed Hotmail, which was acquired by Microsoft; Overture, acquired by Yahoo; and Skype, which was bought by eBay.
Its executive team includes Scott Davison, Raydiance's president and a board member, formerly senior vice president of AOL, and Michael Cumbo, PhD, chief operating officer, an expert in precision optical fabrication and thin-film coating technology. Before joining Raydiance, Cumbo was CEO of BinOptics Corp., a compound semiconductor laser startup that was originally funded by Draper Fisher Jurvetson. Before that, he was executive vice president and general manager of the optical components group of Coherent, which included that company’s passive and nonlinear optics, laser measurement and semiconductor diode laser business units. He has also held positions at JDS Uniphase (now JDSU) and Optical Coating Lab. Bruce Garreau, chief financial officer, joined Raydiance from Infinite Photonics, where he was CFO of both the subsidiary and its parent company Infinite Group Inc.
Raydiance board members are, in addition to Schuler and Davison, John H. N. Fisher, managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson; New Jersey Sen. William "Bill" Bradley; Michael Goldblatt, PhD, CEO of Functional Genetics and former director of Defense Sciences at DARPA; and Joel McCleary -- a former White House aide and treasurer of the Democratic Party who is currently the founder and chairman of Pharmathene Inc. and managing partner of Four Seasons Ventures, where he is focusing on national defense production issues in bio-defense for the Department of Defense.
Davison said during a presentation at SPIE Photonics West 2008, held in January in San Jose, that USPs will become an industry worth $100 billion by 2015.
"Ultrafast lasers have reached their silicon moment: the point at which ease of use, small form factor and affordability combine to enable large-scale commercial applications," he said. Until now, most USP systems have been extremely expensive, very large and usable only by trained photonics experts, according to a statement on Raydiance's Web site: "This has limited experimentation to highly specialized university and government research labs and made commercialization of meaningful applications nearly impossible."
"First developed in the 1980s, USP lasers are extremely brief light pulses of unprecedented power that, unlike continuous-wave lasers, instantly vaporize any material without heat or residual damage to surrounding areas at very precise scales, down to the micron level."
Raydiance said it has "liberated" the technology by combining advanced fiber and micro-optical components with software that is upgraded automatically over the Internet, with a business model "to be an enabling technology platform that allows developers and inventors to apply the transformational properties of USP technology to a range of groundbreaking applications quickly, easily and reliably."
Schuler said the company will be successful "if we can take this very promising, yet complicated and expensive, technology and make it so that inventors and entrepreneurs can create the applications that make people's lives better."Adam Tanous, director of applications marketing, said the Raydiance system is the marriage of two technologies: a high-power but compact ultrashort-pulse laser and embedded software control. "The vision Barry Schuler has for this company is informed by a pretty simple lesson from the tech revolution of the last 40 years: Until something is small and easy to use, it's not going to change the world," he said.
Raydiance's system isn't much bigger than a desktop printer: 49 cm x 49 cm x 26 cm high (19.3 x 19.3 x 10.2 in.) — "and it will get smaller as we move along our development path," Tanous added.It was a DARPA official who initially piqued Schuler's interest in the technology.
Schuler said, "Ultrashort pulse lasers have compelling capabilities that can deliver major benefits to hundreds of lucrative markets. The problem is that the technology is impractical. It's too expensive. It requires highly trained PhDs to operate. And while scientists in research labs have shown how USP photonics can revolutionize important applications, today's USP systems don't have the throughput they need for most real-world applications.
"Our vision is to liberate USP technology from the university lab domain and put it into the hands of hundreds and then thousands of inventors and entrepreneurs," he said. "In short, Raydiance's mission is to make USP technology accessible. Our vision is to see Raydiance USP technology power a new generation of products and services that revolutionize medicine, transform materials processing and manufacturing and change the business of defense forever."
"Michael Goldblatt [director of the Defense Sciences Office] at DARPA thought there was extraordinary potential in the femtosecond lasers and was investing in both miniaturizing them and exploring higher-power regimes," Schuler said. "He felt that progress could go more quickly in the hands of an entrepreneurial startup versus government-supported research. It took me a while to understand his vision and the opportunity, but once I did, I saw enormous potential."
Raydiance is developing a proprietary optical fiber capable of delivering nonthermal, ablative femtosecond pulses. This technology will enable a great many applications, particularly those in the life sciences field, the company said.
Raydiance was recently awarded a multimillion-dollar research and development contract from the US Department of the Navy under which it is developing a high-power version of a commercial "desktop" USP laser for potential use in a variety of defense and homeland security applications. The company has received about $15 million in federally funded projects since it began.
"Military and homeland security applications under evaluation include distance detection -- in other words, establishing whether a target is friend or foe," Tanous said. "The Department of Defense is pursuing higher-energy Raydiance lasers in the development of directed-energy weapons, devices that can destroy targets tens of kilometers away."
The company also recently announced a collaboration with Rutgers University (Schuler's alma mater) and the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation (MTF) "to improve the science of dermal tissue processing" for use in skin grafts and donated-tissue transplants. It will initially focus on using the USP laser to develop noninvasive laser-ablation methods to separate the skin's dermal and epidermal layers to increase the viability of donor tissues; nonintrusive sterilization techniques on donor skin and tendons to minimize collateral tissue damage while removing viral or bacterial contamination; and a method to remove hair from donor tissue with minimal damage.
In addition, it is developing a proprietary optical fiber capable of delivering nonthermal, ablative femtosecond pulses. This technology will enable a great many applications, particularly those in the life sciences field, Tanous said.
A number of potential surgical applications are also on the horizon, and a next-generation lasik technique is being explored by the FDA. "USP treatments for cardiovascular disease, particularly for aortic stenosis and peripheral vascular disease, are of keen interest to Raydiance partners as well," he said.
Some early proof-of-concept work has been done using the Raydiance USP to stimulate gene transfection in certain microbes. At intermediate energy levels -- above that used for imaging and below ablation thresholds -- the system has been shown to open transient pores in cell membranes to facilitate the introduction of genetic material. "A great many novel materials, those transparent to light or materials that melt at very high temperatures, can be machined using USP technology," Tanous added. "Materials like rhenium, silica and silicon carbide can be machined very precisely because the ultrashort pulse ablation process relies on the optical breakdown of materials, and it introduces less thermal energy into a given sample than would a longer-pulse laser or a continuous-wave laser."
The Raydiance USP is able to ablate virtually any material, including transparent materials, through the process of nonlinear optical breakdown. (Photos courtesy of Raydiance)
A small company has formed around the idea of using Raydiance USP for tattoo removal, "which has a very big market potential," he said. Other dermatological applications being investigated include treatments for skin cancer and cosmetic procedures.
Tanous said Raydiance wants to lower the bar to entry for potential application developers via a subscription model. "Traditionally, USP lasers have been very big capital purchases, a fact that has inhibited the commercialization of applications around USP technology. Raydiance is changing that, by offering a monthly subscription model -- a program which enables groups to do proof-of-concept work without the burden of a big capital purchase."
A key element of the model is that it allows a customer to be on a technology development path with Raydiance, he said. "As we release new generations of hardware and software (smaller size, higher power, improved beam quality), subscribers simply have their equipment and/or software swapped out. In a rapidly changing technological landscape, developers will always have access to the most advanced tools."
Raydiance USP technology can be deployed to perform laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy in evaluating the authenticity of precious gems.
At present, Raydiance has 15 or more systems in the field in a number of venues -- government research labs, private companies, university research centers -- pursuing a wide range of applications. They include projects to develop biomedical imaging systems, for example, to identify tumor margins during surgery or to gather neurophysiologic information in real time. Researchers are exploring multiphoton spectroscopy, functional near-infrared spectroscopy and optical tomography with Raydiance USP technology.
"Another one of our discovery partners is exploring burn debridement, using Raydiance technology to both distinguish healthy from necrotic tissue, as well as to ablate the dead tissue away," Tanous said.
Raydiance also has a partnership with the state of New Mexico and has helped establish a state economic development initiative based on an ultrashort-pulse laser technology platform. State funds have been appropriated to establish USP research hubs at three universities (University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Tech) and two national labs (Sandia and Los Alamos). Researchers from a variety of disciplines are working in shared test-bed environments to develop applications based on USP. The ultimate goal of this work is to rapidly spin out commercial enterprises that will attract venture funding and foster knowledge-based job growth for the state.
Tanous said, "The specific task of developing a high-energy, picosecond pulse laser with a small form factor is not trivial and is the work of a lot of very smart electro-optical engineers, software experts and manufacturing engineers. Initially, this technology came out of a DARPA project, which subsequently was spun out to be commercialized by Barry Schuler. In 2004, Barry formed Raydiance and began assembling the team. The idea is that we invest the time and energy of high-level optical and software people on the front end, and then the end user doesn't have to be a laser expert. He or she can go about the business of using photons to innovate rather than spending time fiddling with laser adjustments.
"Raydiance partners with groups of all sizes and types," he added. "But they do have in common an eagerness to rapidly develop applications and bring them to the marketplace. Ultrashort pulses of light have unusual and intriguing interactions with matter. Our objective is to work with innovative people willing to exploit those interactions and create useful new capabilities for the world."
The company has offices in locations "organized around specific talent pools"; most of its 58 employees are split between Orlando and Petaluma, with small offices in Los Altos, Calif., and in Washington, D.C.; Talous said it is hiring "smart, motivated people who are interested in shaking things up a bit."
An article in a national publication recently characterized Schuler as "a rich interloper too big for [his] britches," as viewed by traditional laser companies. That attitude "tells me I am on the right track. I have seen this movie before," said the 54-year-old New Jersey native -- who developed an interest in filmmaking after leaving Rutgers, where he was working on a psychology degree, in the late 70s.
"When desktop computers came along, established companies like Digital Equipment, General Data and Prime Computer pooh-poohed them as toys,” he said. "In the early 90s, when I had developed the earliest e-commerce technology, traditional retailers told me that 'technology guys are arrogant, consumers will never buy products via computer -- they need to come into a store to touch and see it.' In 1999, when I told the music, movie and television industries that the Internet was going to completely change the way people consume entertainment, they were incensed that a technology guy would try to tell them how to run their business."
Such attitudes are "symptomatic of industries that face dramatic change and disruption," he said. "It is the smell of fear. But frankly, the photonics industry should see this as the biggest opportunity ever.”
As to other companies who are developing similar technology, he said, "We hope there are ultimately hundreds of them. And we hope they are inventing products built on top of the Raydiance platform."
Schuler said, "Today, lasers in general are low-volume specialized devices. And USP lasers are the equivalent of vacuum tubes and transistors in the early 70s. Our mission is to take this incredibly useful form of light and make it inexpensive and ubiquitous.”
If they are successful, he added, “We will see an explosion of applications in many fields." He said he envisions USP lasers on construction sites -- drilling, cutting, surface-shaping -- and in surgical theaters, removing cancers at cellular precision, for example.
”Now, many in the traditional laser industry might double over in laughter at that notion, but it wouldn't be as far-fetched as claiming in 1980 that everyone would walk around with a tiny phone in their pocket, or that they could instantly search for information in all of the libraries in the world or buy a product from your laptop while in your PJs and have it arrive in 24 hours at your doorstep.
"We are entering the Light Age," he said. "For 160 years we have put the electron to work; technologically we have extracted as much value as we are likely to. On to the photon!"
For more information, visit: www.raydiance-inc.com