Optical Fibers: Light Guiding on a String of Glass

March 2, 2017

optical fiber

New Coherent, Spatial Mode Multiplexing Apparatus Significantly Enhances Fiber Laser Output

About 176 years ago in Geneva, Swiss physicist Jean-Daniel Colladon inadvertently demonstrated one of the core principles of fiber optics: total internal reflection (TIR). TIR is a phenomenon that helps us to purposely move and manipulate light, so that we can use its energy in lighting, remote sensing, communications, and laser technology.

Colladon intended only to help his audience see his experiment on fluid flow through various holes and the breaking up of water jets. He used a tank of water with a small hole that allowed a jet to stream out the side. His audience, however, could not see the results, so he piped sunlight into the tank and used a lens to focus the light on the hole. The setup not only lit up the experiment, but it also caused the light rays in the water to strike the edge of the jet at a glancing angle, allowing TIR to trap the rays in the liquid. Thus, instead of traveling in a straight line, the light rays bounced along the curve of the water jet as it poured out the side of the tank, forming what Colladon called a “light pipe.”

He later wrote: “I managed to illuminate the interior of a stream in a dark space. I have discovered that this strange arrangement offers in results one of the most beautiful, and most curious experiments that one can perform in a course on optics.”

Since Colladon’s time, a host of other scientists and researchers have contributed to the discovery and science of guiding light through fiber optics, revolutionizing the way we view and use light. Optical fibers are hair-thin filaments, typically drawn or extruded from clear, ultra-pure glass, polymers, or a combination of the two. Each fiber consists of a central transparent core through which light travels. The core is surrounded by cladding, which may be the same or other material, but has a lower refractive index to promote TIR and prevent energy loss. A buffer layer protects the fiber from moisture and damage.

There are different fibers for different applications. Single-mode fibers, which are about 8-10 microns in diameter, carry only one mode (ray) of light directly down the fiber—the transverse mode. The multi-mode optical fiber has a much larger core (usually 62.5 microns or larger) and can handle multiple modes. The design and the wavelength of the light propagating in a fiber specify whether the fiber will be multi-mode or single-mode. Yet all optical fibers still do the same thing: guide light.

Remarkably, this fine flexible “string” is so versatile that it lets us use the power of light in so many different ways. Fiber optics technology enables surgeons to detect and destroy cancerous tumors, astronomers to determine the elements of distant stars, engineers to identify structural weaknesses, and soldiers to communicate securely in hostile environments. With fiber optics, lasers can bore through rock and steel or precision cut gemstones and ceramics. Moreover, thanks to fiber optics, anyone with a phone or computer can connect with others around the world, anytime, anywhere.

Even after decades of using fiber optics, there is still a lot to discover. Today, UCF has teams of scientists dedicated to advancing the science of fiber optics. The Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers (CREOL) supports research in fiber fabrication, multimaterial fibers, nano-structured fibers, mid-infrared fibers and fiber lasers.

One of those research teams is finding novel methods of fabricating and using fiber optic materials and devices. The Microstructured Fibers and Devices research group, led by Rodrigo Amezcua Correa, Ph.D., is developing both new materials and new structures for fibers.  Two areas that the team is working on are the development of new fibers for high-power lasers and for new light sources. The team is also working on increasing the capacity of optical communications. To learn more about Amezcua’s team and their accomplishments, see this month’s faculty feature.

Amezcua’s expertise in fiber optic fabrication has also led to a new invention that can operate in harsh environments. Together with Axel Schülzgen, Ph.D., head of the Fiber Optics research group, and scientist Jose Enrique Antonio-Lopez, Amezcua developed a new class of fiber optic sensors that are ideal for use in harsh environments. The technology, which has been licensed for commercialization by Multicore Photonics, can be used to sense temperature, pressure, strain, acoustic vibration, mechanical vibration or a combination of sensing applications.

UCF has several other fiber optic technologies available for licensing. For more information, contact John Miner.


By: Kathleen Snoeblen

Startups, Start Here: Three Tips for Raising Investment Capital for Your Technical Innovation

September 8, 2016

Thought cloud: How do I make an investment pitch?Raising capital from angel investors and venture capital firms can provide the funding needed to transform your innovation into a profitable company. But it doesn’t come easily, and for many it doesn’t come at all.

It can be especially difficult for highly technical founding teams without a business background to communicate in terms that investors understand and that will capture their interest enough to invest in the company. If you’re a founder who is not so comfortable talking about business models, market opportunities, or channel strategies, here are three tips for effective communication with an investor audience:

  1. Properly frame your investment pitch

I’ve seen many pitches fail to capture the attention of the investor audience because the entrepreneur focused too heavily on the technology and product rather than business model and market opportunity. Of course you want investors to understand what’s special and unique about your innovation but remember, this is not a product pitch. Instead, it’s an opportunity to explain that there’s a big gap in the marketplace and a customer need that must be filled, and you have a profitable plan for doing just that. It doesn’t matter how novel or ingenious your invention is if you don’t have the execution plan in place to connect with and sell to a lucrative market. Investors are investing in you, the entrepreneur, and your business, not just the product.

Again, think about this from the investor’s perspective – they’re in this to make money! And how do they make money? Return on investment. Your company’s growth plan and your (most likely) exit strategy is what they care about. They want to see you know how to scale this company and can make enough profit along the way to have a rewarding exit opportunity in 3-7 years, because that’s when they finally make a return on their investment.

  1. Traction is king

Traction is one of the most important factors for gauging startup success. It refers to any early commitments you’ve received from the supply- or demand-side of your business such as sales, purchase orders, LOIs (letters of intent), contracts, grant awards, sponsorships, or new team hires – any way that stakeholders show a commitment of time, money, interest, or resources into what you’re building. Traction in your market is especially important to investors who want you to prove that customers will buy your product.

  1. Have a thoughtful plan for use of funds

One of the first things an investor might want to know is why you are raising money. Do you need to hire more engineers? Do you need a sales and marketing budget? Are you making final adjustments to your product design? Lay out a plan that includes internal (operations-focused) and external (customer-focused) milestones that you’ve set for the company to reach over the next few years, and specific milestones you’ll reach with this infusion of cash you’re seeking.

Not only is it important to show you have a clear plan for using the money, but that each dollar invested will go a long way. Explain how much closer this investment will get you to a market-ready product, first customers, steady revenues, etc. Investors don’t want to see their money as just a “drop in the bucket” but instead that it will add a great deal of value to growing the company. It’s typically a turn-off for many investors to see a company and product that still need millions of dollars and many years of R&D before it will start bringing in money. Ideally you want to convey that you have a customer-ready product and have proven your business model, and now you just need money to replicate and scale what you’re doing. The more you have reduced business risk in the eyes of investors, the better.

For more guidance on raising capital, contact Jack Henkel at the University of Central Florida’s Venture Accelerator Lab. We have a coaching staff to help technology entrepreneurs and researchers identify appropriate funding opportunities and prepare a strong investment pitch.

Launch a Startup or Apply for Jobs After Graduation? One Ph.D. Student’s Story.

August 3, 2016

Helicon Chemical Company logoHelicon Chemical Company is a B2B startup co-founded by President and CEO David Reid, Ph.D., a materials scientist and engineer. Reid launched two companies while he was a doctoral student in Sudipta Seal, Ph.D.’s lab. He shared his experiences of what he has learned through his startup journey so far.

Tell us how this process began for you as an entrepreneur.

I founded Helicon around the time I was wrapping up my Ph.D. at UCF.  Prior to founding Helicon, I was involved in another startup company called nSolGel with my advisor, Dr. Seal. nSolGel was founded within the first couple years that I joined UCF. At the time, I did not know much about the entrepreneurial process. I was involved in developing and scaling up the technology, and had the opportunity to give presentations to potential investors and customers. nSolGel is still doing very well, and this experience showed me that the technology we’re developing at UCF can have significant commercial potential.

During the final year of my Ph.D., I had to make a decision about my future: am I going to apply to jobs within academia or within industry? I had completed all my course requirements, but I heard of a course offered by Dr. Tom O’Neal [Associate VP for Research & Commercialization] on technological entrepreneurship. I was intrigued and thought, I’m going to take this course and see what this is all about.

In that course, one of our projects was to review the UCF’s patent portfolio, select a particular patent, and develop a business plan for commercialization. After going through that process, I really enjoyed it and thought that this is something that I could actually do. Around the time that class ended, I decided to look into UCF’s patent portfolio and start a real company. So Helicon was born out of that experience.

What UCF resources did you use?

The resources and early stage mentoring advice that came out of the Venture Accelerator Lab were extremely helpful. One of the first decisions that I made once the company was founded was to start writing proposals for SBIR [Small Business Innovation Research] funding. The Venture Accelerator Lab not only introduced me to the SBIR program, but also helped me in writing my first proposal. They helped with market research, and walked me through registering in the countless databases to establish the company’s presence with the government.

What UCF has done recently with the Business Incubator [where Helicon is currently located] is really incredible. Having a laboratory facility here is a huge asset to a small company like ours. It gives us capabilities we wouldn’t otherwise be able to have.

What technologies did you license? What stages of development are they currently at?

We licensed a number of patents and IP [intellectual property], all related to nanocomposites and nanotechnology, which allow us to produce new materials that were not previously possible.  Based on the Technology Readiness Level scale, we’re at about a TRL 5 for the product, meaning we have a functioning prototype that has been tested in realistic environments.  We are in the process of scaling it up and moving toward full scale demonstrations of the product.

What are some ingredients for success when it comes to launching a startup?

  1. Have a strong founding team.

The founding team is one of the most critical components. That doesn’t only include who you are bringing with you to do the work as part of your company, but also your broader team—your legal team, accountants, mentors, etc. Almost every day you’re going to encounter situations and problems you’ve never encountered before, and if you have those mentors and resources in place where you can go to ask for help, ask questions, bounce ideas off of, and get guidance, then you’ll find yourself making much better decisions as you go along.

  1. Have expertise in the technology and do your market research homework.

Before you decide to license IP, or even before you decide to found the company, you want to spend a lot of time understanding exactly what the technology is, what the product that you envision is going to be, and the potential of that market. [This could save] you from spending a significant amount of your time and resources pursuing something that might not be the best choice for what you’re doing or the technology you’re licensing.  Choosing the right first product and first market for that product is a key to early success.

How do you see startups that use university technology different from other types of startups?

Most technologies coming out of universities are not finished products. But when you license a technology from a university vs. trying to come up with something similar on your own, you have a huge leg up.  Technology from a university has most likely had several years of R&D put into it by top experts in the field. That level of work, and the money that is invested into university research, is something that a startup company really can’t replicate. Also, the facilities and the capabilities of the university would far exceed what a nascent company would have on its own.

The other thing is the credibility that’s given to your technology when it has come out of a university lab, and the university name associated with that. It means that you have expertise supporting your idea. You’re not just proposing something out of the blue—you’re proposing a concept that has come out of a top research institution.

If there is one piece of advice that you would give an entrepreneur, something you wish you had known before you launched a startup—what would that be?

The one thing that I wish I had known I needed to do when I launched Helicon was to learn about everything outside of your area of expertise. From day one, learn about accounting, learn how to read a general ledger, learn how to understand a legal agreement. Because if you’re the CEO of a company, you can hire people and bring people on board to do all of those tasks, but you need to understand what everyone is doing, and the earlier you get started, the better.

Student-founded companies like Helicon Chemical Company utilize UCF innovations to impact their industries and the world. To learn more about startups at UCF, contact Julia Roberts.

Written by Deborah Beckwin