Photonic technology is ready for the new Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (by Martijn Heck)


Microsoft and Apple are two of the greatest technology companies that defined the late 20th century and the 21st century up to now. Founded in 1975 and 1976 by Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, respectively, these companies jumped on the opportunities created by the maturing of the “integrated circuit” (IC). After the invention of the transistor in 1947, the complexity of ICs has been growing exponentially, as described by Moore’s Law. In 1976, the year Apple was founded, an IC contained about 10000 transistors.

Jumping ahead 40 years…

Photonic integrated circuits (PICs), also known as optical chips, contain thousands of components (~4000) nowadays. Indeed, about the same number as the ICs in 1975. While ICs consist of transistors, capacitors and resistors, a PIC consists of, a.o., lasers, modulators, photodetectors and filters, all integrated on a single substrate. These PICs are nowadays extensively used commercially in datacom and telecom.

So what?

PIC technology is, like IC technology, one of the very few technologies that grows exponentially in complexity, comparable to Moore’s Law. In fact, PIC complexity grows exactly like Moore’s Law, as is shown in the figure below. It can be assumed that this trend continues, as the main drivers, e.g., fiber-optic and datacenter bandwidth growth, will not slow down. Just like electronics became ubiquitous in our lives since the 1980s, photonics will be too in the very near future.

When opportunity knocks, will you open the door?

PICs can miniaturize optical systems, make them more complex for the same footprint, bring down costs, and increase their speed, sensitivity and robustness. PICs are foreseen to have a major impact on sensors (structural, spectroscopic, gas, biomedical, etc.), microwave and terahertz technology, signal processing, and bio-medical imaging, besides communications. This has all been extensively shown in academic literature, but transferring this technology out of the laboratory has often been prohibitive. With the advent of a complete PIC ecosystem, including design houses, design tools including process-design kits, open foundries, and packaging services, bringing this PIC technology to real-world applications is now feasible.

Still unsure whether you can benefit from this opportunity? The Horizon 2020 funded project PICs4All can help you and your company, with technical and economic feasibility studies and with design and evaluation. You can contact us through the website:

So we have already opened the door for you a little bit. The problem with an opportunity is well-known though: it seldom knocks twice…