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Start-up Sicoya targets chip-to-chip interfaces 

Sicoya has developed a tiny silicon photonics modulator which it is using to design chip-to-chip optical interfaces. The German start-up believes such optical chips - what it calls application-specific photonic integrated circuits or ASPICs - will be needed in the data centre, first for servers and then switches and routers.

“The trend we are seeing is the optics moving very close to the processor,” says Sven Otte, Sicoya’s CEO.

Sicoya was founded last year and raised €3.5 million ($3.9 million) towards the end of 2015. Many of the company’s dozen staff previously worked at the Technical University of Berlin. Sicoya expects to grow the company’s staff to 20 by the year end.  

Otte says a general goal shared by silicon photonics developers is to combine the optics with the processor but that the industry is not there yet. “Both are different chip technologies and they are not necessarily compatible,” he says. “Instead we want the ASPIC very close to the processor or even co-packaged in a system-in-package design.”

Vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers (VCSELs) are used for embedded optics placed alongside chips. VCSELs are inexpensive to make, says Otte, but they need to be packaged with driver chips. A VCSEL also needs to be efficiently coupled to the fibre which also requires separate lenses. ”These are hand-made transceivers with someone using a microscope to assemble,” says Otte. “But this is not scalable if you are talking about hundreds of thousands or millions of parts.” 

He cites the huge numbers of Intel processors used in servers. “If you want to put an optical transceiver next to each of those processors, imagine doing that with manual assembly,” says Otte. “It just does not work; not if you want to hit the price points.”    

In contrast, using silicon photonics requires two separate chips. The photonics is made using an older CMOS process with 130nm or 90nm feature sizes due to the relatively large dimensions of the optical functions, while a more advanced CMOS process is used to implement the electronics -  the control loops, high-speed drivers and the amplifiers - associated with the optical transceiver. If an advanced CMOS process is used to implement both the electronics and optics on the one chip, the photonics dominates the chip area. 

“If you use a sophisticated CMOS process then you pay all the money for the electronics but you are really using it for the optics,” says Otte. “This is why recently the two have been split: a sophisticated CMOS process for the electronics and a legacy, older process for the optics.” 

Sicoya is adopting a single-chip approach, using a 130nm silicon germanium BiCMOS process technology for the electronics and photonics, due to its tiny silicon photonics modulator. “Really it is an electronics chip with a little bit of optics,” says Otte.


You can’t make a data centre ten times larger, and data centres can’t become ten times more expensive. You need to do something new.



The start-up does not use a traditional Mach-Zehnder modulator or the much smaller ring-resonator modulator. The basic concept of the ring resonator is that by varying the refractive index of the ring waveguide, it can build up a large intensity of light, starving light in an adjacent coupled waveguide. This blocking and passing of light is what is needed for modulation.

The size of the ring resonator is a big plus but its operation is highly temperature dependent. “One of its issues is temperature control,” says Otte. “Each degree change impacts the resonant frequency [of the modulator].” Moreover, the smaller the ring-resonator design, the more sensitive it becomes. “You may shrink the device but then you need to add a lot more [controlling] circuitry,” he says.

Stefan Meister, Sicoya’s CTO, explains that there needs to be a diode with a ring resonator to change the refractive index to perform the modulation. The diode must be efficient otherwise, the resonance region is narrow and hence more sensitive to temperature change.  

Sicoya has developed its own modulator which it refers to as a node-matched diode modulator. The modulator uses a photonic crystal; a device with a periodic structure which blocks certain frequencies of light. Sicoya’s modulator acts like a Fabry-Perot resonator and uses an inverse spectrum approach. “It has a really efficient diode inside so that the Q factor of the resonator can be really low,” says Meister. “So the issue of temperature is much more relaxed.” The Q factor refers to the narrowness of the resonance region.

Operating based on the inverse spectrum also results in Sicoya’s modulator having a much lower loss, says Meister. 

Sicoya is working with the German foundry IHP to develop its technology and claims its modulator has been demonstrated operating at 25 gigabit and at 50 gigabit. But the start-up is not yet ready to detail its ASPIC designs nor when it expects to launch its first product. 


5G wireless

However the CEO believes such technology will be needed with the advent of 5G wireless. The 10x increase in broadband bandwidth that the 5G cellular standard promises coupled with the continual growth of mobile subscribers globally will hugely impact data centres.

“You can’t make a data centre ten times larger, and data centres can’t become ten times more expensive, says Otte. “You need to do something new.”

This is where Sicoya believes its ASPICs can play a role.

“You can forward or process ten times the data and you are not paying more for it,” says Otte. “The transceiver chip is not really more expensive than the driver chip.”

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