Lucent venture eyes holographic storage technology
MANHASSET, N.Y. Lucent Technologies Inc. will launch a new venture devoted to commercializing holographic data storage, a high-density, high-transfer-rate technology that researchers believe has the potential to revolutionize data storage and enable rapid distribution of digital content.
The new company, InPhase Technologies, will be based in Longmont, Colo. near the heart of the data-storage industry. Nelson Diaz, former vice president and general manager of StorageTek Corp.'s tape drive business, will be president and chief executive officer of InPhase.
The business aims to commercialize technology based on a photopolymer material developed at Bell Laboratories, and storage media and manufacturing technology co-developed by Lucent Technologies and Imation Corp. (Oakdale, Minn.) under a 1999 agreement. InPhase gains access to these technologies via a license from Lucent, its parent.
Imation is the major corporate investor in InPhase. Three venture capital firms Signal Lake (Westport, Conn.), Madison Dearborn Partners (Chicago), and Newton Technology Partners (Seoul, South Korea) have provided an undisclosed amount of seed funding for the enterprise. The money will be used to fund development, pay for product development, and hire engineers and a marketing staff over the next two years, Diaz said.
As with other ventures it has created, Lucent said it intends to spin-off InPhase as a separate company in three to four years.
No time line has been set for the introduction of products, and it's not clear which storage markets the business will target.
But in an interview with EE Times, Diaz said he believes the technology will enable "point-of-sale kiosks" where consumers would purchase movies stored on very cheap media, or be incorporated into information systems for data archiving and retrieval.
Development and productization of the technology will be directed by chief technology officer Kevin Curtis, who led the holographic storage group at Bell Laboratories' Physical Research Lab (Murray Hill, N.J.). All six researchers in that group have joined InPhase, which plans to hire more engineers.
InPhase's ambitious mission involves technology that has been researched for more than 20 years, but which has yet to realize its promise. Lucent said that issues involving systems, materials and funding have stalled development over the years and prevented the technology's commercialization. In addition, the technology has been overshadowed by more rapid advances in magnetic technology, which has achieved greater-than-expected speed and capacity improvements by exceeding what were once thought to be its physical limits. At the same time, progress in HDS proved more difficult than imagined.
HDS took another blow last November when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency stopped all government funding of HDS research.
Lucent Technologies has been one of the few companies to fund its own holographic data storage research. In earlier efforts to commercialize the technology, the company struck a deal with Imation in 1999 to build a prototype HDS system and evaluate its commercial potential.
Since then, those partners have improved materials and systems technology enough to launch a business around it. CTO Curtis claimed that his group has used DVD-developed lasers to reach storage densities of 300 gigabits per square inch and transfer rates of "many tens of megabytes per second."
The company's technology rests on the invention of a photopolymer with bit-storage characteristics and environmental ruggedness suitable for extreme temperature and humidity. In a 1999 interview with EE Times, Curtis said the material possessed "more sensitivity and better dynamic range than lithium niobate," the preferred material at the time.
InPhase won't be the only startup trying to turn HDS technology into commercial products. Rivals reportedly include Holoplex Technologies Inc. (Pasadena, Calif.), founded by Demetric Psaltis, a professor of electrical engineering at California Institute of Technology.
IBM Corp.'s Almaden Research Center (San Jose, Calif.) has conducted significant HDS research for many years, though the company isn't spinning off a holographic data storage business.
With Rockwell Science Center (Thousand Oaks, Calif.) and Stanford University, the IBM research center was involved in the government-funded Holographic Data Storage System consortium in the mid 1990s. That consortium achieved "a new world record" for storage density and data rates, said Hans Coufal, manager of science and technology at the IBM Almaden center.
"With the final demo last year, we achieved more than was expected we reached 250 gigabits per square inch." And in a HDSS demo with Rockwell and Stanford University, the group achieved a data rate of 10 Gbits/s, Coufal said.
IBM continues to develop HDS technology and may be exploring some "game changes" that could facilitate manufacturing, lower costs and improve the appeal of HDS, Coufal said. But IBM does not plan to commercialize the technology any time soon. "For our own applications, the technology is not quite there yet," Coufal said.
Coufal called the HDS startups "pioneers who could change the complexion of the game for everyone. I personally would like them to succeed."